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.