There were already plenty of reasons to avoid this highly processed ingredient like the plague. Now there’s an even better reason.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) makes up one out of every ten calories Americans eat. It is in nearly every processed food and sweetened beverage. Americans consume about 150 pounds of sugars per person per year, thirty-six pounds of which is in the form of HFCS, making HFCS one of the principal drivers behind heart attacks, strokes, cancer, dementia, and diabetes.
Now we’ve learned that HFCS contains mercury.
A 2009 study led by a former FDA employee found that half of tested samples of HFCS contained mercury. Another study found nearly a third of tested commercial products containing HFCS were contaminated with mercury. In a statement released with the study, one of the authors remarked:
“Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Given how much high-fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the [US Food and Drug Administration] to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply.”
Years before the study, the lead author, Renee Dufault, was an environmental health researcher at the FDA conducting research on chlor-alkali processing plants. These plants use mercury to produce chlorine and caustic soda — sodium hydroxide, a chemical base used in manufacturing paper, textiles, and many other products, including HFCS. In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that about seven tons of mercury were missing from the eight chlor-alkali processing plants in the US. Every year, in fact, these plants reported missing mercury to the EPA. Due to the public health nightmare this poses — since exposure to mercury in even small amounts can cause serious health problems — Dufault began investigating where the missing mercury was going.
Dufault learned that mercury residue in chlor-alkali plants could be found in all products made with mercury, and that caustic soda from these plants was used heavily by the HFCS industry. She conducted tests and found that 45% of HFCS samples tested positive for mercury contamination. In 2005 she presented her findings to the FDA, but was instructed to drop the issue altogether. Dufault said that the FDA began taking her off field projects and wanted her “to sit in an office.” When Dufault left the FDA in 2008, she decided to go public with her findings.
Following up on Dufault’s report, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that nearly one-third of the fifty-five brand-name products they tested were contaminated with mercury. For a list of those products, you can consult the full report here.
The FDA and the HFCS industry say there is nothing to worry about. The agency said the mercury in Dufault’s samples was elemental mercury and thus safer than other forms of mercury—although no scientific evidence was provided to substantiate such a claim. The lab that originally analyzed the samples even said it was likely that the kind found in the HFCS samples was organic mercury—which is the form most dangerous to human health.
The peril mercury poses to human health, especially to young children with developing brains, cannot be understated. As Dufault and her colleagues point out in the article, mercury in any form is toxic. Organic mercury readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and damages developing nervous tissue. Even if only trace amounts are found in HFCS-containing products, the amount of HFCS that Americans consume every day without even realizing it makes this a huge concern — especially given the propensity of metals like mercury to accumulate over time.
© 2017 Alliance for Natural Health USA, CC BY 3.0 US