by Marion Nestle
Jan 27 2009

Mercury in high fructose corn syrup

Never a dull moment.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a think-tank in Minneapolis, tested brand-name foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and found about half of them to contain mercury.  HFCS, it seems, is made by a process that involves lye, which in turn is made in chlorine – alkali plants by a method that uses mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, although not as bad a toxin as methymercury, the kind that accumulates in large, predatory fish. A scientific report published in Environmental Health says the amounts of mercury in HFCS ranged from 0.00 to 0.57 micrograms per gram. The IATP’s bottom line: the process for making HFCS should be changed to one that does not introduce mercury.

This seems like quite sensible advice, but how worried should we be about mercury in HFCS? I agree that mercury in any form is unlikely to be good, but I have no idea whether such low levels do measurable harm.  For one thing, these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.  My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.  Also, soft drinks are the major sources of HFCS in American diets, but these were found to be relatively free of mercury.  This is puzzling.

If anything, these studies are a call for more research on heavy metal toxicology.  In the meantime, let’s lobby for changing this process for making HFCS, but even more so for cleaning up coal-burning power plants that supply 40% of mercury in our environment.

Update January 28: Food Production Daily has a good report on this, with quotes from the Corn Refiners.

  • http://foodaroo.wordpress.com Foodaroo

    While I agree that high fructose corn syrup is unhealthy, I do not believe this story is alarming. When the mercury levels are compared to those found in salmon , which has a maximum level of .19 ppm or 190,000 ppt (according to the EPA and US Dept. of Health), the food items found in the chart below is nothing to be concern about.

    http://healthobservatory.org/library.cfm?refid=105026

  • http://doesabodygood.blogspot.com Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good?

    how interesting. I like that you don’t jump directly on the obvious “HFCS is the devil!” but rather put it in perspective with all foods and our environment containing small amounts of mercury. very helpful. thanks!

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  • http://squirrelbread.wordpress.com heather

    always thought-provoking and inspiring. you have a way with words, and a way of communicating with the general public that is accessible (i.e. understandable). i am a dietitian and find it is often hard to translate such complex issues into more appropriate terms and concepts. launched a food blog last week and would love for you to pop in some time. bravo again on your continuing effors.

    cheers,

    heather
    http://squirrelbread.wordpress.com

  • http://www.ahealthyview.com Alicia

    Marion,

    I love your work and enjoyed your lecture at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

    I have some questions.

    1.) Isn’t it 0.57 micrograms per gram of HFCS?

    2.) Is the average daily consumption of HFCS in the U.S. 50 grams per person as stated in Environmental Health online journal? http://www.ehjournal.net/content/8/1/2

    3) Does the EPA recommend that an average woman not consume more than 5.5 grams of mercury per day?

    If yes to all of the above, wouldn’t that mean that a person could possibly be consuming 5 times the upper safety limits of mercury on a daily basis if they consume the foods tested in the study?

    You’re clarification is greatly appreciated!

    Alicia

  • http://jmride.blogspot.com Jmatt

    I wish I could share your conciliatory, wait & see tone on HFCS mercury. We are under attack on many fronts by our own trusted institutions. In banking, investment, health care & food, unscrupulous people do whatever they want to maximize profits. We need more peer reviewed scientific study and more whistle blowers to bring these issues to light.

    The Corn industry claims that they are using new technology for NaOH and HCl production. The fact is that there are still plenty of Mercury Cell Chlor-Alkali plants in and outside of the US. Today materials are sourced worldwide at the cheapest prices available.

    What Hg levels are safe? Why is the autism rate at an all time high? what effect do the (3) genetically modified enzymes used have on HFCS impurities? these are valid questions. Due diligence is needed and that will not come from the very politically astute Corn Lobby. The American Food Industry does not have a “Farm to Fork” food certification requirement as other countries have. Their ability to resist such controls has placed us at risk to multiple tainted food products on an all to regular basis.

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  • Marion

    I agree that the worst case scenario sounds pretty bad but I still want to know what the baseline is. Without knowing how much mercury is in the general food supply, it is hard to know how upset to get about the amounts found in HFCS. The one clear conclusion is that the method ought to be changed and these studies should help move that change along. In the meantime, there are plenty of other reasons to avoid junk food without having to invoke this one.

  • http://jmride.blogspot.com Jmatt

    Processed Foods… Sugar

    Cane sugar from the West Indies financed much of the colonization of the Americas. Europeans did not consume sweets widely until sugar arrived from the new world. We can all imagine the birth of the French confection industry :). Unfortunately England cut off cane sugar shipments to France in 1807. The French turned to the Sugar Beet, extracting and refining its lower sugar content with a complex chemical process, to support their new found addiction.

    Price & availability of sugar was based on free enterprise until the US Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers not to produce around 1910. US Government Farm Subsidies have kept the price of cane sugar artificially high since. America’s sugary foods manufacturers eventually did what the French had, 160 years earlier. They created an active very complex chemical & biological process to produce cheaper sugar, from corn this time.

    From 1974 to 1984, US High Fructose Corn Syrup per capita dry consumption, went from 0 to over 40 lbs. During this time ADM, Coke & Pepsi rode a ground swell of profits, America became completely addicted to sugar and various controversial issues surrounded HFCS. US food production is in many ways better than ever today, but the danger zones are more dangerous now. Science, technology and rational thinking are more necessary than ever in managing the inextricably joined forces of Food & Politics.

    Credit American Public Radio, Marketplace for the historical concept used here.
    Original blog post by Jmatt, former process industries specialist.

  • p***** off

    For those that say you want smaller government? Why don’t you go and “save us” more money by doing away with the FDA entirely! They don’t seem to be doing anything anyway. That’ll be the ultimate deregulation! Then we can find mercury in 100% of our food base rather than the mere 45% contamination we have now. At least everyday Americans can take solace in one thing. Your kids are being poisoned too. And for what? Supporting your ego of self importance by having more inanimate objects than others? If this is what you once called “compassionate conservatism” I’d like to see how the rest of your dictionary reads so I can prepare accordingly.

    On the FDA topic I’d like to say this. I want to see prison time. I bet those running FDA are thanking their God that they’re not Chinese. I actually want capital punishment, but that’d make me as lame as them.

    To echo President Obama’s words spoken yesterday. “Shame on you!” Shame on all of you. I want a government that works. I want a government that is actually interested in functioning in the interest of the taxpayers, rather than ripping us off. What is it going to take?

  • http://www.inoculatedmind.com Inoculated Mind

    Re: Jmatt

    What effect do the (3) genetically modified enzymes used have on HFCS impurities?

    ZOMG! Teh enzeimz R genneticully mawdifyd wer gona dy!

    Assuming that something is dangerous because of the “genetically modified” stigma when we have countless real dangers in our food supply isirrational.

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  • http://www.naturewithme.blogspot.com Sinclair

    I am ASTOUNDED at those who do not find this absolutely ALARMING. What part of Frankenfood do people not understand about “genetically modified” AND HOW EXACTLY do they think this makes the label “NATURAL” okay for something derived from a triple process of GM transformation? (FDA now says HFCS can be labeled “natural”)

    As for the mercury, we are bombarded with poisions EVERY DAY in our toothpase (fluoride), shampoos (SLS), MERCURY in our teeth, MERCURY in vaccines (exponentially multiplied), AND NOW IN OUR SOFT DRINKS and every other product containing HFCS?

    I purchase NOTHING containing HFCS, but others do, and others are being duped by the current horrifying commercials touting the safety of ingesting this unnatural substance, with no mention of how it is created, or any disclosure that it contains mercury. The public has to DIG very deep to even findREAL, ACCURATE information about the life-sustaining food and drink they ingest every day, and I find it absolutely revolting.

    Long live corporate greed at the expense of public safety. Are we really that complacent?

  • http://nodaddy.com nodaddy

    oh dear

    you almost included evidence in your article.. be more careful next time

  • Jethro

    “AND HOW EXACTLY do they think this makes the label “NATURAL” okay for something derived from a triple process of GM transformation? (FDA now says HFCS can be labeled “natural”)”

    Probably because it’s the bacterium and fungi that produce the proteins which catalyze the process that are GM, not the actual materials that go into the product.

    “1.) Isn’t it 0.57 micrograms per gram of HFCS?

    2.) Is the average daily consumption of HFCS in the U.S. 50 grams per person as stated in Environmental Health online journal? http://www.ehjournal.net/content/8/1/2

    3) Does the EPA recommend that an average woman not consume more than 5.5 grams of mercury per day?

    If yes to all of the above, wouldn’t that mean that a person could possibly be consuming 5 times the upper safety limits of mercury on a daily basis if they consume the foods tested in the study?”

    No. It means they’d be consuming about 1/200 the safe dose from HFCS. .57 micrograms = .00057 grams mercury per gram HFCS.

    .00057*50 = .0285 grams, or 28.5 micrograms. You’re conflating grams and micrograms in your calculation.

    And that’s using the high end of HFCS products containing mercury. The low end was a thousandth of that.

    The current acceptable level for seafood is 1 microgram methylmercury per gram seafood, so you should worry about it about as much as you worry about a can of tuna fish. Or less, since methylmercury is more toxic than mercury. For bottled water the limit is 2 micrograms mercury per gram water.

    Actually, the high end of the studies findings is bracketed by the range mentioned here:
    http://www.truestarhealth.com/members/cm_archives07ML4P1A5.html
    which cites a study measuring the amount of mercury in breast milk. .2 to 6 micrograms, correlated with the number of mercury amalgam fillings a mother has.

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