High-fructose corn syrup has taken our food shelves by storm. It is present in many different types of bread, cereals, breakfast bars, yogurts, soups and sugary beverages. It is estimated that, on a typical day, an American consumes an average of 12 teaspoons of such syrup. Further, teenagers and others with high consumption may even be taking in up to 80% more than average. Recently, two separate studies, one published in the journal Environmental Health and the other conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), have revealed a further danger of high-fructose corn syrup, having found that it may contain mercury.
Environmental Health Study
In the report of the first study, it was noted that mercury cell chlor-alkali products are used to make many food ingredients; these include citrus acid, sodium benzoate, as well as high-fructose corn syrup. The latter, referred to as HFCS for short, is used to sweeten and stabilize food products and lengthen their shelf lives.
In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency had reported that an average of about 7 tons of mercury from each of the then 8 mercury cell chlor-alkali plants located in the US were unaccounted for in 2000. All that mercury must have gone somewhere, and, with it being such a dangerous neurotoxin, that was a dangerous statistic implying additional exposure for humans and the environment. Of particular concern is exposure for children and other sensitive segments of the population.
An Environmental Health Officer (EHO) thus conducted an investigation in 2004, which revealed that both mercury grade and membrane grade caustic soda were used by the industry to manufacture HFCS. Another chemical used was hydrochloric acid. Since mercury grade chemicals were used in the manufacturing process of HFCS, it was likely that mercury could be found in the final product, too.
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The EHO dug deeper, collecting HFCS samples from 3 manufacturers and then analyzing them for total mercury content. In almost half of the samples, or 9 out of 20, mercury levels above the detection limit of 0.005 micrograms of mercury per gram of HFCS was found. The maximum level detected was 0.570 Ã¬g mercury/g HFCS in one sample. The samples were collected from 17 to 24 February, 2005.
For the IATP study, the researchers had tested 55 popular brand-name food products and detected mercury in 17 of them (see WebMD link below for a list of the affected products). The 55 products had been chosen based on the fact that HFCS was the number one or two labeled ingredient; such labeling indicates that HFCS was the highest or second highest ingredient in the product, according to weight. The worst hit products were dairy products, followed by dressings and condiments.
“Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Given how much high fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply,” said David Wallinga, MD, from the IATP, who was involved in both the said studies.
It should be noted that a “snap-shot” sample of the products was obtained, which would not conclusively prove that these products were always or often contaminated.
In both studies, the form of mercury detected was not stated. According to Carl Winter, a toxicologist who also directs the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, there is little to worry about. “I would imagine that a good majority of the mercury that is detected would have been in the form of elemental mercury,” he said. According to him, methylmercury is “by far the most toxic form of mercury”, as the body absorbs it better than other forms of the metal.
“We have a principle in toxicology, which is the dose makes the poison. It’s the amount of a chemical, not its presence or absence, that determines the potential for harm, and frankly, I don’t see based on their findings that they’ve made much of a case that this is something that consumers need to worry about,” he also said.
WebMD contacted the food manufacturers and, not surprisingly, they insisted their products are safe. Audrae Erickson, the president of the Corn Refiners Association, also criticized the Environmental Health study. “This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years” she stated.
The problem, though, according to Wallinga, is that while about 90% of HFCS production in the US now does not use mercury, it is possible that companies are obtaining their HFCS supplies from overseas. And much of European production may not be mercury-free. Further, the IATP study had found mercury in food products taken off the shelves in 2008. Erickson, however, did not comment on that study.
In any case, whether or not US manufacturers are using mercury-tainted substances is not the most important point. Either way, mercury poisoning via HFCS is still be taking place on a global level, which cannot be good news.
“For me, the take-home message is really that this is a totally avoidable, unnecessary exposure to mercury. We’ve got a safer, more efficient technology for making these chemicals that are part of the ingredients used to manufacture high-fructose corn syrup,” said Wallinga. “The bad news is that nobody knows whether or not their soda or snack food contains HFCS made from ingredients like caustic soda contaminated with mercury. The good news is that mercury-free HFCS ingredients exist. Food companies just need a good push to only use those ingredients,” he also said.
With mercury being such a dangerous toxin, in particular for children – the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that minimizing mercury exposure is essential for optimal child health because the metal can affect many aspects of development, in particular brain maturation – the information uncovered by the two studies is important for consumers to take note of.
In any case, notwithstanding the presence of mercury, high-fructose corn syrup is detrimental to health in other ways, and its consumption is best minimized or avoided altogether.