Arsenic, BeverageGrades, and the Power of Withholding Information

I received an unusual “story” by way of Palate Press this week. It looked like this:

To:
Submissions

Message:
Alcoholic beverage testing company, BeverageGrades has discovered lead
and arsenic present in wine at levels that exceed the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) standard Maximum Contaminant Levels for
drinking water.
Independent laboratory testing has been conducted on the top selling
white wines in the United States. Approximately one in every three
bottles tested was found to contain either arsenic or lead levels that
exceed the Maximum Contaminant Level.
Regular consumption of these elements, even at low levels, can present
a serious health risk.

Topic (wine, food, wine pairing, travel, etc.)
Wine Science

Suggested Title
High Levels of Arsenic and Lead Detected in Wine

Lede
Approximately one third of the top selling wines in the United States
found to contain lead and arsenic.

Your Website or Other Writing Sample
http://www.beveragegrades.com

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Mailing Address (Check)
7000 Broadway
Suite 307
Denver, CO
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BeverageGrades, it seems, is a young company creating a private database of beverage health information, summarized in their trademarked “grades.” They say that they run a bottle – of wine at the moment, of beer, spirits, and coolers in the future – through a pile of lab tests to create a profile for each product. Users can see calories, sugar, and carbohydrates per serving, plus a set of “grades” that are supposed to indicate how healthy a wine is overall, how “skinny” it is, how “pure” it is, how likely it is to trouble your allergies, and how likely it is to give you a headache. The problem with HealthyPour™, SkinnyGrade™, and the rest of these ratings is that if you’re looking for more information on how they’re calculated, you’re out of luck. New users have to click “I do” to having read BeverageGrade’s methodologies page, but those “methodologies” say nothing more detailed than “we take lots of measurements of lots of stuff.” And, rather than showing numbers for any of these measurements, wines are rated as average or better or worse than average.

Concerns about proprietary details aside, that’s not enough information. What in tarnation does “pure” mean? What counts as a “contaminant” or an “additive” in BeverageGrade-speak? How do they summarize how healthful a wine is when a whole pile of scientists are still trying to figure out how and why and whether wine is healthy? They list sodium and “vitamins and minerals,” but should I care about sodium in wine, and is wine a good source of “vitamins and minerals” in the first place?

Instead of seeking to educate consumers, BeverageGrades is patronizing them with overly simplistic branded products while hiding information. And that brings us back to arsenic.

Arsenic is found in wine. Recent studies in New Hampshire and France have shown higher arsenic concentrations (in toenails and urine) in wine drinkers versus non-wine drinkers (fish, beer, and Brussels sprouts were similarly implicated, as has been rice in studies based in Asian countries). Arsenic is found in water and soil; drinking water remains, in fact, our most significant source of arsenic exposure. Grapevines and some other plants seem to take up and concentrate it and other heavy metals. The FDA has set maximum limits on how much arsenic can be present in apple and pear juices in the US and is working on similar limits for rice; wine very well may be next on the list. If we stop here, things look bad. 

But stopping there means withholding important information. Sying that arsenic is found in wine is, crucially, different from saying that arsenic in wine poses a significant health risk. Arsenic in wine and arsenic as a health risk in general aren’t things we understand well yet. We don’t yet have a clear picture of how much arsenic is too much arsenic (the same is true for a lot of environmental toxins, including lead).

The several recent studies I found all indicate that arsenic in wine probably doesn’t pose a significant risk to most drinkers. The “probably,” “significant,” and “most” hedges in the previous sentence are all a nod to that yet-unsolved “how much arsenic is too much” problem. But an analysis of arsenic in wine, sake, and beer for sale in Central Europe concluded that it’s not a significant risk to consumers. A comparative risk assessment of fifteen “known and suspected human carcinogens” judged that ethanol was the only really significant carcinogen in alcoholic beverages; the rest, including arsenic, “may pose risks below thresholds normally tolerated for food contaminants.” In other words, these fish are too small to bother frying.

I suspect that BeverageGrades isn’t counting alcohol itself against a wine’s HealthyPour™ rating – though I don’t know for sure, since they’re not sharing that information. In any case, I appreciated a comment made by one reader of a popular press story about arsenic in wine, who suggested that not just drinking, but eating and breathing and sleeping were hazardous to our health, too, and that we should probably stop doing all of those things. Wine, unlike breathing, isn’t a necessity. But if we try to eliminate every risk from our way of life, we’ll end up not living at all. 

The problem with bagged wines

Using balled-up plastic wrap to ameliorate the funk of a corked bottle (because TCA adsorbs, or clings, to the cling wrap) is an old trick, but I’d hazard that our thoughts about wine and plastic didn’t go much further until the recent hullaballoo over BPA and the health risks it poses when it leaches out of packaging and into food. We’re newly aware, now, that plastics aren’t just neutral, inert, ignorable containers. The good news is that Scholle, the major manufacturer of the plastic bags inside box wine, asserts that their bags are BPA-free; more on that note here, a piece on wine safety I wrote for Palate Press.

But the wine safety coin has two sides: your safety, and the wine’s safety. Is the wine safe from the bag? “Scalping” is a known problem with plastics. Like people who can’t swim clinging onto the edge of a pool, hydrophobic (“water-fearing”) molecules decide that they like the plastic better than the nearly-all-water environment of the wine, and they hold on. With those molecules attached to the plastic instead of suspended in the wine, the wine’s flavor changes for the worse.

We know almost nothing about the specifics of what wine components end up attached to the plastic,** but several studies over the past few years have compared the composition of the same wine stored in different packaging systems for several months. Just out in the past few weeks is research showing that Vilana (a white varietal wine made in Crete, chosen because the researchers are from Crete) is perceptibly different, compared with the gold standard dark green glass bottle, after three months of bag-in-box storage. SO2 values were significantly lower after just a month in plastic, and low enough to signify a significant threat of white wine oxidation after two months. Titratable acidity increased significantly after two months, and a whole slew of volatile (aromatic) compounds decreased by a more or less significant degree.

Regrettably, these folks didn’t assess what effect those changes had, if any, on wine flavor; they only asked their tasters whether the bagged wine was different than the bottled wine (which it was) and not how it was different or whether it was more or less tasty.

Similar problems with bag-in-box Chardonnay were demonstrated by Hildegarde Heymann and her team at UC Davis last year, showing decreased volatiles and increased oxidation products with bagged wine, especially bagged wine stored at warm or hot temperatures. Individual wines are bound to be affected by bagging to different degrees: the most important flavor characteristics of Riesling will depend on a different set of molecules than those for Chardonnay or Vilana or Tempranillo. But it’s still safe to say that flavor scalping is an all-around problem for wines stored in plastic, and that bags leave wine dangerously susceptible to oxidation if left to sit around for a few months.

Most bag-in-box wine is purchased for immediate or near-immediate consumption, as is most wine in general in the United States. But, in every case, undesirable bag-related changes were accelerated by high temperatures. Between unrefrigerated shipping conditions and potentially careless in-store handling, I suspect that stores and wines with lower turn-over rates often don’t taste the way they should by the time they reach someone’s glass.

If we’re talking about the cheap stuff that goes into most boxed wine, and the (I’m going to be blunt) undiscriminating people who drink it, that’s inconsequential. But the push for better wine in “alternative” packaging (essentially all of which involves plastic, with the exception of refillable growlers) has been un-ignorable. This is great: solutions like bagged wine are generally more environmentally friendly, lower-cost, and super-sensible for someone (like me) who wants to have one glass of respectable wine a night (and who hasn’t yet sprung for a Coravin, which I’ll grant is the obvious and better solution). But the plastic system — or control over storage conditions, or preferably both — will have to improve before an educated consumer will want to entrust anything other than a casual backyard red to a plastic bag.

**I suspect that the companies who produce and sell bag-in-box wine actually have a lot of privately-generated data about wine-plastic interactions, but they’re not sharing.