Eating Mercury Many Products with High Fructose Corn Syrup Contain Mercury—Where's the Uproar?

Not since actor Jeremy Piven claimed to have contracted mercury poisoning last December after years of excess sushi-eating has the element gotten so much press. Now the consumer watchdog and research group the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reports that mercury has turned up in one of the country’s most common food additives—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The January 2009 study “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup” reveals the presence of mercury in 17 of 55 brand-name food and beverage products that contain HFCS, or one-third of those selected products taken from store shelves in the fall of 2008. The products tested by the IATP ranged from barbeque sauces and condiments to dairy products and beverages to nutrition bars and snacks, and included Smucker’s Strawberry Jelly, Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup and Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. “This is a level of contamination that should be on par with the peanut butter recall,” says Meredith Niles, coordinator for the Cool Foods Campaign which educates the public on how food choices impact climate change. “Considering the FDA’s own rules that already exist about mercury, the situation should be regulated.”

Dietary exposure to mercury can pose life-threatening risks to adults, children and developing fetuses by attacking the nervous system. The sugar substitute is used both to enhance flavor and prolong shelf life. And Americans ingest a ton of it: The IATP report suggests that 19-to-20-year-olds consume about 60 grams of HFCS per day, while 12-to-18-year-olds consume “about 70 grams, or 40% more than a 50 gram per day “average,”” according to the IATP report citing the National Health and Examination Survey that tracks the fructose consumption patterns of American adults and children.

HFCS has made headlines before. The additive has been criticized by nutrition, whole-food and parent-advocacy groups for the correlation between increased consumption and rising obesity and diabetes rates in children. The Corn Refiners Association has staunchly disputed claims of the detrimental health effects of HFCS. It’s released a slew of pro-HFCS advertisements touting the substance’s “natural” origins.

So where does mercury fit in? HFCS is a mixture of common carbohydrates, fructose and glucose. Corn is milled to produce cornstarch, which is then processed again to extract a substance that is primarily glucose. Enzymes are added to change the glucose into fructose. During this production process, four plants in the U.S.—in Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and West Virginia—use mercury-cell technology in the production of caustic soda, an ingredient used in the corn conversion process, according to the IATP. The plants were accused of making “mercury-grade caustic soda” on outdated 19th century technology from chlorine plants, ultimately leading to contamination.

Mercury was found in 17 of 55 brand-name food and beverage products that contain high fructose corn syrup. © Getty Images

Products have not yet been removed from grocery store shelves because the origins and legitimacy of the IATP study results are still being questioned by corn industry groups and implicated manufacturers.

In a February 2009 press release, Corn Refiners Association (CRA) President Audrae Erickson said, “The article’s authors and the IATP engage in unfounded claims and speculations based on scant data of questionable quality. High fructose corn syrup is safe for use in foods and beverages. To imply that there is a safety concern based on this incomplete and flawed report is irresponsible. The article and the report are based on outdated information of dubious significance.” The CRA questions the legitimacy of the IATP report because it is based on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data from 2005. Former FDA researcher Renee Dufault and a team of scientists found that nine out of 20 products contained mercury, or 45% of the samples. But not until Dufault retired from the FDA in March 2008 were the findings made public.

The researchers and scientists who compiled the IATP report suggest that the work in the study was “never intended to take the place of a full-scale safety test by the FDA.” But they caution that the findings have serious implications for public health, since Americans (and American children in particular) consume so many HFCS-containing products.

The Quaker Oatmeal To Go Bar was one product found to contain mercury in its HFCS. When asked if this IATP report would affect sales of the product, Quaker Oats Company Public Relations Manager Candace Mueller says, “Based on our initial observations of the environmental health study, we are concerned that the methodology and assumptions relied on in the study are critically flawed and that their purported findings are insufficient to support their claims and to warrant alarm.” Quaker will continue to sell the bars.

The FDA released a statement that said the agency “takes mercury contamination in food very seriously and the form of greatest concern is the organic form, methymercury, dietary exposure to which comes almost exclusively from fish.”

The FDA suggests that the IATP report does not provide any specific information about “any appreciable risk from this potential exposure from mercury,” saying, “The authors provide no information as to what form of mercury the total is comprised of. 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.”

The FDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a 2004 joint consumer advice report on the presence of mercury in fish and shellfish, and the EPA currently “uses a RfD [Reference dose] of 0.1 ½g/kg body weight/day as an exposure without recognized adverse effects,” according to the EPA website. Beyond standards set by mercury in fish and those levels of mercury used in dental amalgam, mercury is still present in other food sources, complicating the creation of a universal mercury standard.

“We haven’t even been able to fully address mercury in fish yet,” says David R. Brown, Sc.D., director of public health toxicology at Environment and Human Health, Inc. and professor of environmental ethics at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Currently, under FDA guidelines, the products [listed in the IATP report] are not “contaminated” but “adulterated,” meaning that mercury is not meant to be there.

“It’s not right to have mercury in Quaker Oats [bars] or any other food,” he adds. Although many companies with products on the list have questioned the merits of the IATP report, the presence of mercury in any food sources leaves Brown concerned.

“It’s a situation that warrants more than passing attention,” he says. “The major question is how in the world did we have mercury in food sources and nothing was done about it?”