Not Just Arsenic: Scientists Spot Many Chemicals in Food

Foods are safe even when they have small amounts of scary-sounding toxins.

Sept. 19, 2011— -- People may have been surprised to find out this week that apple juice contains arsenic, but scientists say that many foods contain trace levels of compounds that sound scary but are virtually harmless at low levels.

"Arsenic is something we all take in," said ABC News' chief health and medical correspondent, Dr. Richard Besser. "We take in small amounts of a lot of things that if you take in large quantities are dangerous, but in small amounts aren't."

Besides arsenic, the FDA keeps tabs on a variety of chemicals and compounds that are present in small amounts in foods.

Dioxins, chemical compounds that come from burning fuels and waste incineration, can be found in trace levels in foods with animal fats, like meat, fish and dairy products.

Acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer and nerve damage with high exposure, accumulates in small, harmless amounts in potato or grain products when they are fried, roasted or baked.

Fish and shellfish are safe to eat, even though certain types contain mercury.

Even bananas contain low levels of radioactive potassium.

The FDA says that consumers are in no danger from these compounds and should eat a balanced diet made up of many foods.

Dr. David Acheson, who directs food and import safety for Leavitt Partners, said it's important to understand how much of those compounds is safe to consume.

"If you analyze food down to the molecular level, you'll find many things that are really scary if you take them literally," Acheson said. "It's not just the presence or absence of a compound that's important, but the levels at which they are present."

Dr. Mehmet Oz caused a stir this week by saying on his national program, "The Dr. Oz Show," that many popular brands of apple juice contain arsenic. Scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agree that apple juice does contain arsenic, but add that the element is present in such small amounts that it is harmless.

Juice manufacturers, government regulators and food safety scientists rejected the show's suggestion that the arsenic levels might be dangerous.

Besser called the suggestion "extremely irresponsible" and said he was particularly concerned that Oz's report was creating unnecessary public alarm.

"What was concerning to me was pointing to this one food, apple juice, and saying we have a big concern here without putting in perspective that arsenic in low quantities has absolutely no problem for health," Besser told Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" on Friday.

On Thursday's "Good Morning America," Oz stood by the results of the apple juice testing that he reported on his show. He added that one of his primary concerns was the regulation of food that is imported from overseas, where health and environmental standards may not be as strict as America's.

Besser said he shares those concerns and plans to continue discussing them with Oz.

"The problem is, and we agree on this, there's not inspection of what's going on overseas," Besser said. "We need to talk about food and food safety, and we're going to do that."