Perspective: Mercury in High-Fructose Corn Syrup
I don't want mercury in any food I feed my family. But the news that two studies have found mercury in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a good headline-grabber -- but perhaps more alarmist than need be.
In one study, published in the journal Environmental Health, a hunch-following team of researchers noted that several plants manufacturing HFCS can't account for missing mercury. Might that mercury have escaped into the environment? Or could it have made its way into the HFCS and thus into foods containing HFCS? They tested single samples of 20 food items and found traces amounts of mercury in 9. Their work is provocative and certainly warrants followup.
David Wallinga, director of the food and health program for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, agreed. So he tested 55 products whose packages listed HFCS as the first or second ingredient, detecting some mercury in 17. His work is published on the IATP Web site. (The IATP, which doesn't list its funding sources on its Web site, represents the interests of independent farmers and advocates sustainable, environmentally friendly farm policies that also promote human health.)
The Corn Refiners Association, the trade group that represents makers of HFCS, was quick to point out that the first study was based on old data, gathered at a time when most manufacturers of HFCS used a process that incorporated mercury-containing ingredients. That process has been largely abandoned in the U.S. -- though 4 plants still use it, according to the second study. Wallinga -- who conducted his research just last fall -- notes that because U.S. food companies may use imported HFCS, you can't be sure whether the old, mercury-yielding process was involved.
Still, while the studies found mercury in many products tested, it wasn't absolutely clear where that mercury came from. HFCS just seemed like the most likely culprit. Plus, the studies just measured overall mercury: it didn't distinguish between elemental mercury and the more toxic methylmercury.
In the end, Wallinga writes:
Of course, our survey was just a snapshot in time; we tested only one sample of each product. That is clearly not sufficient grounds to give definitive advice to consumers on specific products. In other words, our efforts were never intended to take the place of full-scale safety testing by the FDA. But to us they do suggest a strong need for it, since Americans (and American children in particular) consume an awful lot of HFCS-containing products. It's a big chunk of their diet. That, plus the simple fact that adding mercury-containing HFCS to the food chain appears completely avoidable, makes this an issue worthy of much more attention.
He recommends calling the toll-free numbers listed on packages of food containing HFCS to ask where that HFCS comes from and if it's made via updated technology. He suggests those few HFCS manufacturers in the US that still use outmoded production techniques switch up to the new, mercury-free technology. He calls on consumers to lobby Congress to press the FDA to pay attention to this new issue.
And he suggests, as others have before, that we all reconsider eating so much food containing HFCS. Those products may or may not have dangerous amounts of mercury -- but the presence of HFCS indicates that the food is probably highly processed. Substitute whole, unprocessed foods whenever you can.
That low-key advice is well worth taking, mercury or not.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
January 28, 2009; 9:29 AM ET
Categories: Environmental Toxins , Nutrition and Fitness
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