High Fructose Corn Syrup Meets Mercury
You may have seen this television commercial (or one like it) last September:
Brought to you by Sweet Surprise, a Web site of The Corn Refiners Association, the ad campaign came on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s decision in July that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be labeled as “natural.” The clip reiterates the theme that HFCS is “made from corn, has the same calories as honey or sugar and is fine in moderation.”
To back up for a second, HFCS is a man-made sweetener that has taken the place of sugar in soda over the past 20 years and has found its way into a slew of processed foods, including cookies, cereal, ketchup, bread and dairy products. Making HFCS requires sundry chemicals, including caustic soda (also known as sodium hydroxide or lye) which is used to help separate corn starch from corn kernel. In concert with hydrochloric acid, the caustic soda also helps to maintain the HFCS’s pH balance.
Caustic soda is made from chlorine. The reason this is important is because for more than 100 years, the primary method for chlorine production was mercury based. Newer, more efficient technology has replaced mercury-reliant methods in most cases, but there are four plants -- in Augusta, Ga., Charleston, Tenn., Ashtabula, Ohio and New Martinsville, W.Va. -- that continue to use the mercury-cell technology.
So what does this have to do with your can of cola?
Two studies released this week suggest that caustic soda, when produced the old-fashioned mercury way, becomes contaminated with mercury, which then contaminates the HFCS and ultimately, the food. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that is damaging to neurological development, particularly for developing fetuses and children. (See EPA backgrounder.)
In the first study, published in the journal Environmental Health on Jan 26, Renee Dufault, a former FDA scientist, found detectable mercury in nine out of 20 HFCS samples from three manufacturers. Her findings led to this conclusion: “with 45 percent of the HFCS samples containing mercury in this small study, it would be prudent and perhaps essential for public health that additional research be conducted by the FDA or some other public health agency to determine if products containing HFCS also contain mercury.”
EH study co-author Dr. David Wallinga was in fact “interested in taking this study to the next step.” Explains Wallinga, who overseas the Food and Health Program at the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy in Minneapolis: “Like many people, I hadn’t made the connection with connection of the products. I wanted to find out if one would be able to find mercury in food products made with high fructose corn syrup.”
Last fall, Wallinga and his staff went to the supermarket and selected 55 HFCS-sweetened products (HFCS was listed as first or second ingredient on the label) from the shelves, a variety that includes Pop-tarts, Snapple, Smucker’s Jelly and Yoplait yogurt. Independent lab tests revealed detectable mercury in 17 samples, or 31 percent.
The details of the study are included in a report titled “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup,” also released this Monday.
As was stated in the EH study, Wallinga and his authors acknowledge that much more study is necessary: “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.”
But in our conversation earlier this week, Wallinga argues that “the study raises as many questions as answers. Consumers are in the dark. All they know is what is on the label. But what they don’t know is what kind of plant the caustic soda was made in, and whether there’s mercury in their food. We can’t answer those questions based on our limited testing, but shouldn’t we know a lot more about this?”
Corn Refiners Association president Audrae Erickson challenged the EH study, arguing its accuracy and relevance. “This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance,” Erickson states in a press release, available on the CRA Web site.
However, the CRA does not mention the IATP study in its retort, which prompted my request for comment; as of last night, CRA has not responded to my request.
By the way, in 2007, a relatively unknown senator from Illinois named Barack Obama introduced S. 1818, also known as the “Missing Mercury in Manufacturing Monitoring and Mitigation Act” which calls for phasing out the use of mercury in the manufacture of chlorine and caustic soda by Jan. 2012.
So the studies say more research is needed. But where does this leave me and you and the neighbor’s kids who can’t get enough Hershey's chocolate syrup (third highest in mercury from among the products tested)? Should we run to the cabinets and do a HFCS sweep? Weigh in with your thoughts, sweetened, contaminated or otherwise.
By Kim ODonnel |
January 28, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
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