Another Reason to Hate HFCS

According to the Washington Post, nearly half of the tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained measurable levels of mercury—mercury that makes its way into many popular name-brand foods and beverages, say a pair of U.S. studies, one published in the current issue of the journal Environmental Health, the other conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Mercury, a heavy metal that has been linked to learning disabilities in children and heart disease in adults, is often a cause for concern in fish. Consumers have learned to mostly avoid eating some fish for fear of mercury poisoning. Now it looks like foods made with mercury-contaminated HFCS could be a danger we never thought to worry about.

The mercury makes its way into the HFCS during the manufacturing process, as some HFCS is made with caustic soda and hydrochloric acid that has been bathed in an electrified vat of mercury (sounds appetizing, no?). Most manufacturers have abandoned this process now and are mercury-free, but clearly enough mercury-contaminated HFCS is out there to have shown up in the new studies.

Researchers added that there is no published safe dose for “elemental mercury,” the type found in the HFCS. But the EPA says that most women should limit the consumption of methylmercury, the kind found in fish, to 5.5 micrograms a day. The researchers calculated that if those same women regularly ate products contaminated to the highest degree found in the study, 0.57 micrograms per gram of food, they could consume up to five times the EPA’s supposedly safe dose.

Since the story first broke, Matt McKinney, a writer for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, posted a follow-up comment to his coverage of the issue, featuring the following response from Michael L. Herndon, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

“FDA takes mercury contamination in food very seriously and the form of greatest concern is the organic form, methylmercury dietary exposure to which comes almost exclusively from fish. However, FDA believes that this study does not provide any specific information or sufficient analysis to reach the conclusion that there is any appreciable risk from this potential exposure from mercury. ... It is very probable that the total mercury level represents mostly inorganic mercury, this represents no health hazard since it is so poorly absorbed when ingested. In addition the potential levels of exposure are extremely low.”