In an attempt to reclaim its reputation a few months back, the makers of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) created a few sneaky commercials, which were really hard for us in the food community to take seriously. But now HFCS is in the news again — and this time the reason is much worse. It turns out that many foods sweetened with HFCS contain mercury, left as a residue in the production of caustic soda, a key ingredient in HFCS. And worst of all, the FDA and the industry have known about this potential toxin and has continued serving it up since at least 2005.
The HFCS industry has been shrouded in mystery since it began in the 1970s, essentially the result of “get big or get out” record corn harvests and subsequent plummeting commodity prices for farmers. What to do with all that excess corn? The answer was not to decrease yields, but to find a way to get that corn into our stomachs. This has led to the proliferation of HFCS in nearly all processed foods you find in the grocery store. The industry has lacked transparency, and our government has refused to mediate our current health crisis — an upswing in diabetes and obesity resulting from cheap calories like HFCS — with regulation. So its not surprising that it took so long for the news to reach the public eye.
The initial study [PDF] led by Renee Dufault, a now-retired Environmental Health Officer-cum-whistleblower, was published yesterday in Environmental Health, and found that nearly half the samples of HFCS tested contained mercury residue. The impetus for the study was to find approximately 58 tons of mercury that was reported missing in 2000 (and it is assumed yearly) from the chlor-alkali plants (makers of chlorine and caustic soda) in operation in the U.S.
Where has it gone? apparently some of it has gone into our veins and tissues.
Before now, our greatest threat for mercury exposure was through fish, followed by mercury amalgam in dentistry and through vaccines, as it is sometimes used as a preservative. But Dufault’s study estimates that exposure via HFCS could be up to 50 times that of mercury amalgam exposure in children age 3-19, as this age group is the largest consumers of HFCS.
Of course we know that mercury is a cumulative toxin, especially dangerous to pregnant women and children, and that those with high exposure (Jeremy Piven among them, from eating too much sushi) show signs of sensory impairment, sensation loss and lack of coordination. This disorder was formerly referred to as Mad Hatter’s Syndrome, because haberdashers who produced felt hats in the 18th and 19th centuries used a mercury compound in their process.
We too have had a potential day to day exposure to the heavy metal, just by choosing our food from the boxes and bottles in the center aisles of the grocery store. Aside from the case against us for improper nutrition, we could be slowly poisoning ourselves.
A second study, by David Wallinga, M.D. and his co-authors entitled “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup,” [PDF] tested products directly from the supermarket. One in three tested positive for mercury residue. These included products like Smucker’s Strawberry Jelly, Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup, Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, Nutra Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars, Pop-Tarts Frosted Blueberry and Coca-Cola Classic.
The reason Wallinga cited for his extension of the original study was that:
Many of these products are specifically marketed to groups vulnerable to mercury. Soft drinks, fruit juices, and other junk food are successfully marketed to children not only through Internet and television advertising, but also in school vending machine and cafeteria options. People who rely on food stamps or who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are also a special target for junk food manufacturers, because they offer the most accessible and often least expensive calories in the grocery store.
He went on to criticize the FDA for not doing its job, and urged for mercury, which is not required to produce HFCS, to be taken out of the process. I agree, but I would like to see our government push the corn refining industry further: They should be shouldering responsibility for our declining health in this country, and as such, should be more adequately regulated. If it were up to food justice advocates, the substance would be banned outright. But corn refiners should at least be held accountable for misleading advertising, and consumers should be aware of what they are buying, through better transparency on labels.
So the question is, what will the FDA do with this new found information? Dufault urges the creation of a mercury surveillance program, that monitors foods besides fish, along with additional public health evaluation of the exposure to mercury through HFCS. But can we really keep avoiding the deeper problem, that HFCS, as a product of the human imagination, could possibly be a failed experiment? For the sake of our health, it might be time for the government to finally intervene.