I'll admit, I didn't jump on the "high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you" bandwagon. I didn't start calling it "HFCS" to make it sound more like some exotic, toxic chemical than a foodstuff. Fructose is, after all, the same kind of sugar found in fruit and honey. Corn is a vegetable. I just didn't pay attention to how corn was turned into "high-fructose corn syrup," or HFCS.
In making HFCS, caustic soda is used, among other things, to separate corn starch from the corn kernel. For decades, HFCS has been made using mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants. The use of mercury cells to produce caustic soda can contaminate caustic soda, and ultimately HFCS, with mercury.
I don't know about you, but the words "caustic soda," "chlorine," and "mercury" are just not words I want to hear mentioned in conjunction with stuff I'm going to put into my mouth. But I don't know much about food processing, and I'm assuming there are inspectors and regulators whose job it is to ensure that our food supply is safe. Maybe not actually good for us, but mostly it's not going to kill us, right?
I have always thought we overreacted, somewhat, to the dangers of mercury. I miss chasing little beads of it around a plate with my finger, whenever a glass thermometer broke. It's almost impossible to buy one of those things, today. There was a big hue and cry over mercury in amalgam dental fillings, years ago, but most of the folks who switched all their fillings out for newer materials were largely dismissed as nut jobs. It was acknowledged that maybe dental technicians would come into contact with unacceptable levels of mercury, but since most of us aren't dental technicians, it's just not high on our list of things to worry about. And then there were a few bizarre news stories where guys in HAZMAT suits kicked people out of schools and homes and "decontaminated buildings," but most of us have never seen a whole jar of metallic mercury in one place at one time, so that, too, seemed remote and mostly irrelevant.
But nobody in their right mind eats the stuff. I don't know why, mind you - but I "get" that it would be an unhealthy thing to do. And it has never occurred to me that I might be ingesting mercury daily.
EPA and FDA have set a limit of 2 parts inorganic mercury per billion (ppb) parts of water in drinking water. EPA is in the process of revising the Water Quality Criteria for mercury. EPA currently recommends that the level of inorganic mercury in rivers, lakes, and streams be no more than 144 parts mercury per trillion (ppt) parts of water to protect human health (1 ppt is a thousand times less than 1 part per billion, or ppb). EPA has determined that a daily exposure (for an adult of average weight) to inorganic mercury in drinking water at a level up to 2 ppb is not likely to cause any significant adverse health effects. FDA has set a maximum permissible level of 1 part of methylmercury in a million parts (ppm) of seafood products sold through interstate commerce (1 ppm is a thousand times more than 1 ppb). FDA may seize shipments of fish and shellfish containing more than 1 ppm of methylmercury, and may seize treated seed grain containing more than 1 ppm of mercury.
Okay. Up to 2ppb is "safe." That would be 2000ppt. A report released by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) this week indicates that about half of the food samples tested were found to contain mercury. Curious as to which ones contained mercury, and how much? Click here. And you thought grabbing that oatmeal on the run was better than skipping breakfast... Now, nothing on the list contained 2000ppt mercury. But mercury is one of those things that hangs around in your body for a while - months - while you continue to add to it. It accumulates.
HFCS is found in sweetened beverages, breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS. Consumption by teenagers and other high consumers can be up to 80 percent above average levels.
Surely, there's no mercury in our high-fructose corn syrup - I mean, the FDA regulates this stuff, right? Isn't it their job to keep us safe?
But even if there is mercury in my food, how bad could that be? According to the CDC:
Children exposed to metallic mercury for long periods may have trouble learning in school. When mercury levels in the body are extremely high, "chelation" therapy is necessary. Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical into the bloodstream; the chemical combines with the mercury to aid in its removal from the body.
Okay, so maybe that explains why learning disabilities are on the rise, along with obesity. But really, is mercury all that dangerous? See the CDC's Public Health Statement on Mercury. And note that mercury is listed right below arsenic and lead on the 2005 CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances (phthalates, by the way - banned by the CPSIA in children's toys - don't feature in the top 50 - they begin at 52).
Why is there no immediate recall of products containing high-fructose corn syrup?
“Mercury is toxic in all its forms,” said IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., and a co-author in both studies. “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.”
Well, what can we do about it? The IATP has a few action items for us:
HFCS as a mercury source is a completely avoidable problem. HFCS manufacturers don’t need to buy mercury-grade caustic soda. And the chlorine industry doesn’t need to use mercury cell technology.
In fact, most chlorine plants in the U.S. don’t use it anymore, as it is antiquated and inefficient. While we wait for the FDA to do its job and eliminate this unnecessary and completely preventable mercury contamination, we have a few suggestions for what you as consumers and voters can do.
Currently, food manufacturers don’t list on their products the source of HFCS and whether or not it is made from mercury-grade caustic soda. So call them. Make use of the toll-free numbers or Web sites on many packages, and let companies know you’re not comfortable eating their product until you know exactly what is in it.
As voters, call your elected officials and ask them for hearings to find out why the FDA is not protecting us from mercury in HFCS. Also, ask these officials to reintroduce legislation originally proposed by then-Senator Barack Obama a few years ago that will force the remaining chlorine plants to transition to cleaner technologies. Because even if they stop providing the caustic soda used for HFCS, their mercury pollution is still contaminating our food system as it falls on farm fields and waterways.
"Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup," by David Wallinga, M.D., Janelle Sorensen, Pooja Mottl, Brian Yablon, M.D. (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Minneapolis, Minnesota; January 2009) at http://www.healthobservatory.org/library.cfm?refid=105026