Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Turning Us Into Mad Hatters? | Civil Eats

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Turning Us Into Mad Hatters?

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.

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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.

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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.

Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. irina
    Wow. My father in law had mercury poisoning. He was a potato farmer and every spring he would dunk the cut potato seed in a mercury fungicide solution to prevent it rotting. Enough seed to plant fifty acres of potatoes. Dunked twenty pounds at a time in a mesh basket into an open tub of solution. No protective gear of any kind. No gloves, no respirator, no nothing. Mercury is a neurotoxin!
  2. that commercial is pathetic! but, alas, people are so easily misled. why does common sense about food and ingredients seem to escape the masses?
    (nice post!)
  3. joe
    HFC is the scourge of mankind since hte '70's when our own homegrown Repiglickn' a-hole of an Agruculture Secretary, Earl Butz decided the corn 'industry' had to 'get big or get out'! These corporate whores have been killing Americans for years with their bullshit industrialized food products...gawd I hate thes corporate/ agro-biznezz scumbags!!! They are a big part of the reason why America is headed for the top of the giant trash heap of history, th eonly 'Gawd' they have is the almighty dollar!!! (which ain't worth carp anymore either!!!)
  4. The deception is mind-boggling! I have written about HFCS on my blog and have been keeping up with many varied issues in the food industry, but I had no idea that mercury was in any way involved in HFCS. Peeling back the layers is an ever more tedious task...
  5. Dana
    I have a petition going on to let the FDA and Congress know what steps we want to take to eliminated the contamination of HFCS or to take HFCS out of our foods. Please sign it!
  6. Anita Robinson
    It's horrible to think that this is going into our children's bodies. I try very hard to watch the labels but it seems to be in so much. I certainly did not get a positive outlook on the commercial. Just seemed ridiculous.

    Anita Robinson
  7. It always amazes me when I see what is in shopping carts at the grocery store. So many people are closing their eyes and ears to what is being passed off as food. As far as I'm concerned, HFCS is poison even without the mercury, along with MSG and aspartame. What are we allowing into our children's (and our) bodies? So many young women are having problems conceiving, obesity, autism, fibromyalgia, migraines; the list goes on and on. Why would the FDA want to make any changes when the drugs that help the symptoms pulls in so much money?
  8. I don't know why I'm amazed to learn this about HFCS. I am sickened about what we sell in our grocery stores- literally. I'm one of those suffering from excess weight and poor eating habits. This is one more reason for me to stay away from processed foods.
  9. As a dietician and mother, this is horrifying...possibly this is responsible for the rise in learning disabilities and autism. Will HFCS be banned from school lunch right away?
  10. pcrossfield
    Nice article Paula,

    I come from the perspective that change has to be driven by a change in demand (education). In this regard and on this particular topic, i believe change is in the air - see.. Are food companies saying bye bye to HFCS.

    In short - driven largely by consumer perception manufacturers are removing HFCS from products. This is pretty facinating as by all official government statements there is nothing wrong with HFCS, yet manufacturers are voluntarily removing it from products due to the pressure from the market who won't stand for it anymore.

    I am not in a position to say whether there is anything wrong with HFCS or not..but i've followed this discussion becuase I really appreciate watching the balance of power shift increasingly to the consumer and consumer advocacy groups such as yourselves.

    bon courage.

    Anton Xavier
    CEO Foodessentials

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