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 Food Politics
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Until I know what the detected levels are and hazards associated with these levels of exposure, I'd find it difficult to assess the hazard levels. If consumption levels of HFCS-containing foods contributes a negligible amount, then the studies can scream DETECTABLE LEVELS all they want, but it doesn't mean much. It is an argument for limiting consumption of processed foods, though.

Mind you, there's a relatively easy solution. HFCS exists as a viable market only because of import barriers to sugar, courtesy of growers. I suppose the excess corn could be converted to ethanol, but that's another day and another subsidy.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 28, 2009 11:15 AM

The best use of high fructose corn syrup is for making ethanol. This stuff is bad for your health regardless of the mercury. The more of it diverted to ethanol production, the better.

Posted by: ajmorgan | January 28, 2009 11:39 AM

Those commercials have been bothering me since they started. I'm not so much concerned with a calorie-by-calorie breakdown of HFCS versus other sugars; it's the utter ubiquity of corn products and the horrible agrobusiness practices (and government subsidies) that have left us with that glut of corn that I'm much more worried about. *That's* why I choose non-HFCS products when I can, but of course the Corn Refiners Association is not going to address this aspect (nor the ecological impacts of refining all those products) in their snide little attacks on people who are concerned about what they eat. The mercury side of the story appears to require a lot more, very careful study to understand if it's a significant concern or not.

Posted by: PittsburghNonNative | January 28, 2009 12:02 PM

Those obnoxious ads are still running. I particulary dislike their mocking tone, which seems to question the intelligence of people who have concerns about ingesting artifical substances. This mercury thing adds a whole new scary wrinkle to the situation. And good luck to all of us in finding food without high fructose corn syrup. If anybody knows of a brand of English muffins that contains neither HFCS or artifical sweetener, please send that info my way. I've just stopped buying them altogether. Also, cool tidbit about Barack Obama. Stuff like that is fun to know.

Posted by: margaret6 | January 28, 2009 12:28 PM

Caustic soda is not made *from* chlorine. Caustic soda and chlorine are *both* products of an electrochemical reaction involving brine (a combination of water and table salt, i.e., sodium chloride). The mercury cell technology is one way of producing that reaction. It's not the chlorine that's at fault; it's the technology.

That said, I agree that reducing our use of corn sweetener is better for our health, mercury or no mercury. And commercials from industrial organizations should *always* be taken with a grain of salt (pun intended).

For what it's worth, if your local power plant or industrial plant burns coal, you're taking in a certain amount of mercury just by breathing.

Posted by: midgecoates | January 28, 2009 12:46 PM

To margaret6: I buy Matthews English muffins in the frozen section at Whole Foods--they are all natural and have no added sweetener (although there are 3 g of sugars). For a fascinating explanation of how US gov policies, agribusiness, and technology interacted to create our corn-based agricultural system, read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. BTW, I once remarked to an Applebee's waitress (who had served my child a second gargantuan soda w/o my permission) that HFCS is of the devil!!!

Posted by: ebtimmer | January 28, 2009 1:04 PM

This study (and I haven't read it yet...but based on tone and content) seems to be yet another one of the "my God, HCFS is killing us so stop using it" studies that seem to be based very losely on fact. "Detectible" is not a limit; most analysis methods can "detect" something even without providing a numeric concentration. If the mercury is present (seems to be) is it at a level that will cause harm (maybe)? Without "more study" I think this group is doing pretty much what the now debunked "HCFS is causing weight gain" study authors were doing: taking random pot-shots and hoping something sticks.

Posted by: byte1 | January 28, 2009 1:16 PM

Margaret6: An alternative to commercial english muffins is the recipe by James Beard in Beard on Bread. It makes a great "english muffin" bread and as I recall, there's no kneading, only stirring.

On the mercury subject, I was shocked to learn Hershey's choc syrup contains mercury. My daughter loves the occasional soup spoon of syrup. I guess that treat is history.

Posted by: davemarks | January 28, 2009 2:28 PM


Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | January 28, 2009 3:04 PM

Combined with Mark Bittman's post on his NYT blog on added salt in processed food, it's sounding like a good argument to limit processed foods as much as possible. Unfortunately, many people find them either more affordable or tastier than natural foods. Or both, I suppose.

Posted by: crowtrobot | January 28, 2009 7:47 PM

Thanks for the suggestions, davemarks and ebtimmer. I have made English muffins before, but it's been a while. Maybe it's time to dust off the old recipe or try the James Beard one. And the frozen ones sound like a great idea -- no worries about them getting stale or moldy. I was lucky enough to be blessed with a child who never developed a taste for soda, so it's just a matter of avoiding the food that HFCS is hidden in. This mercury thing raises all new concerns.

Posted by: margaret6 | January 28, 2009 7:51 PM

Margaret6 et al, here's a link to the fab English muffins I learned how to make a few years back:

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 28, 2009 8:13 PM

For anyone upset by the Hershey's Syrup news, Nesquik Syrup is made with sugar - no HFCS at all. I made the switch over a year ago, and don't miss Hershey's at all.

Posted by: whatrocks9 | January 28, 2009 8:17 PM

I,d say: Swipe your cabinets! My father used to send me to the drugstore to get caustic soda whenever the pipes were clogged. It does the job right away.

Posted by: MarieDC | January 29, 2009 11:12 AM

Yes, I just saw this same commercial very recently as well. It's definitely snide and insulting to those of us who actually care about what we eat and how it was all produced.

Posted by: LittleRed1 | January 29, 2009 12:11 PM

I became cautious of HFCS back in 2005 when I subscribed to the magazine, Organic Living, which is sadly no longer in print. It published an article about the potential dangers of HFCS, and I started paying attention to my food labels to test it. The article claimed that HFCS led to weight gain because it causes the chemical that makes you feel full to shut off, making you think you can eat more. I started making my own bread and most of my foods. What I did buy, I checked for HFCS. I'm a relatively small person, but I saw a difference. I felt better, lost weight, and didn't feel a need for second servings.
Since then, I have continued to pay attention to labels and make most of my own food. It's hard to find packaged products that don't contain HFCS, and that is scary to me. That they might contain mercury is even more frightening.
Thanks for an informative blog article.

Posted by: juliaboyle | January 29, 2009 1:58 PM

to Byte1 who said,"Detectible" is not a limit; most analysis methods can "detect" something even without providing a numeric concentration. If the mercury is present (seems to be) is it at a level that will cause harm (maybe)?"

my response is that scientists are tesing levels in individual food products. If I consume soda with an insignifant amount, then follow up with a meal containing five items with insignificant amounts and do this every day, wouldn't it add up to a significant amount?

Also, insignificant to whom? Most testing is done to adult male tolerences. My kids tolerate far less than that.

How long does mercury stay in your system? Doesn't it build up over time, which is why doctors caution against eating certain kinds of fish more than once every other week or so?

When I was pregnant, my OBGYN wouldn't even let me get a flu shot, which contained an "insignifcant amount" of mercury.

So insignificant amounts are not so insignificant. And since I'm already likely breathing it in, too, any additional amount is not "in moderation" is it?

Posted by: mdreader01 | January 29, 2009 3:46 PM

Those ads drive me bananas too. Read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan--it's a great indictment of industrial farming and starts out with a section on corn. High-fructose corn syrup is basically an attempt by big agriculture to get more calories into a society that doesn't need them.

Posted by: molvo89 | January 30, 2009 1:09 PM

mdreader - The flu shot you weren't supposed to take had anything to do with any mercury in it. With regards to insignificant vs. significant, the devil is in the details.

Let's say 1 part per billion is the danger level. If anything you eat is at 0.1 ppb, then you might accumulate enough toxin even though any individual dose isn't a problem. Tuna is at the top of the pyramid and so the level builds up. On the other hand, if the detectable level is one part per trillion, consuming dozens of items still won't add up to the danger level.

High fructose corn syrup is used, because of import duties on sugar. Adding sugar (and salt) is a way to make processed foods taste more palatable. No conspiracy involved. It tastes better, so people are more likely to buy it.

I haven't gone "off the grid", but do try to make as much at home as possible. One example is yogurt. We buy plain yogurt and add pureed apricot to sweeten it (also adds fiber). The Yo-Baby yogurt cups taste good, but are loaded with sugar.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 31, 2009 12:11 PM

As long as mass marketers decide to add extra sugar to products, I doubt that whether it's made of corn or sugarcane will affect obesity and other health problems. HFCS has become a bugaboo out of proportion to the same level of - bugaboo-ness - that all excess sugar should have.

Posted by: Jumper1 | January 31, 2009 4:14 PM

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