HomeChemical Analysis for Food and Beverage TestingDetecting Heavy Metals in Food and Beverages

Detecting Heavy Metals in Food and Beverages

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Arsenic, Cadmium, Mercury, Lead and other Heavy Metal Exposures

The insidious thing about heavy metal food poisoning is that toxic levels can be built up over a long time from a wide variety of sources. Whether it be from arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, or others, symptoms present themselves only late in the exposure. With no single geographic or species source of contamination, typically low concentrations in any given food, and people’s varied diets, it is more important to avoid even minute contaminations in food sources. Because of this prolonged trace exposure, regular high-sensitivity testing for these metals is essential in key points of the food supply chain. As a result, the global trend is for increased frequency of testing.

Despite the regularity by which the major food and beverage agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), European Commission (EC-EFSA), China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA), and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) regulate heavy metals in consumer products and feed, long-term safety remains a question of exposure levels (concentration over time).

The challenge is that “heavy” metals (usually classified as possessing a density greater than 3.7 g/cm3) are found at typically nonhazardous levels in a wide variety of food types and geographies. However, significant single, or short-time exposures have been increasingly reported and global concern for increased health risk is rising. A recent US Consumer Reports analysis (Hirsch, 2018) of 50 nationally distributed, packaged baby foods found that all 50 products had at least one of the more health damaging metals (cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead). Further, about 68 percent of tested products had at least one heavy metal in seriously high levels and fifteen would pose potential health risks to children if exposed with one or less servings per day. Even organic foods afforded no better protection from heavy metal exposure in the study.

Heavy Metal Testing Reagents, Standards, and Water

Recent advances in analytical technologies have allowed much improved sensitivity, efficiency and availability of heavy metal testing globally. Three of the most commonly used technologies involve the use of either atomic absorption spectrophotometry (AAS), inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES), or inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS); vast improvements over older, colorimetric techniques (Jackson & Punshon, 2015). These modern techniques are pushing the limits of sensitivity for heavy metal detection but can be significantly influenced by sample matrix, and require extensive operational training, high-quality reagents and purified water.

We are committed to advancing global heavy metal detection by providing Millipore® expertise in matrix sample preparation, Milli-Q® lab water solutions, and Supelco® analytical reagents for reliable, precise chemical analysis with modern analytical techniques, improved lab efficiency, and regulatory knowledge across the food supply chain.

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Adriano DC. 2001. Bioavailability of Trace Metals.61-89.
2011. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). [Internet]. Available from:
Heavy Metals in Baby Food: What You Need to Know. [Internet]. Available from:
Jackson BP, Punshon T. 2015. Recent Advances in the Measurement of Arsenic, Cadmium, and Mercury in Rice and Other Foods. Curr Envir Health Rpt. 2(1):15-24.
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