Another reason to steer clear of high fructose corn syrup – mercury!

In case you needed another reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup, here’s a new one – it may contain mercury. According to a Washington Post article, “Almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient, according to two new U.S. studies.”

Janelle Sorensen (of Healthy Child, Healthy World) co-authored the studies for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade report along with Dr. David Wallinga, mentioned in the Washington Post article.

According to Sorensen (who spoke with me via email), at this time it is unknown what species of mercury this is. Personally I don’t know that it matters too much, because mercury is just plain bad for our health.

  • The nervous system is very sensitive to all forms of mercury.
  • The EPA has determined that mercuric chloride and methylmercury are possible human carcinogens.
  • Very young children are more sensitive to mercury than adults.

You may recall that the Environmental Protection Agency has issued warnings regarding the consumption of certain types of fish containing mercury for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children.

Should there be warnings against consumption of mercury-laced HFCS too? When you consider HFCS is found in so many food and drink products these days, it may seem hard to avoid. Cereal? Yes. Bread? Yes. Soup? Yes. Lunch meat? Yes. Yogurt? Yes. Condiments? Yes. Soda? YES! Even infant formula can contain corn syrup! If you shop at a conventional grocery store (not a health foods store), check out the ingredients listed on just about anything you buy. You’ll be surprised (and maybe even a little freaked out) how many items contain HFCS. According to the Washington Post, “On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS, but teens and other high consumers can take in 80 percent more HFCS than average.”

That’s why the HFCS commercials by the Corn Refiners Association are so laughable. They say HFCS is fine in moderation (though they never quantify what that amount is), but how do you consume it in moderation when it’s infiltrated a large percentage of the products in the grocery store?

What really freaks me out though is to know that corn syrup is in infant formula. It might not be high fructose corn syrup, but still. Does a baby need artificial sweeteners? What about genetically modified (GMO corn) sweeteners as most corn is? And more importantly, how can a baby, who’s diet consists solely of formula, possibly consume it in moderation? Or is moderation only necessary for HFCS, but not corn syrup? I tried to find the ingredients in formula listed online and was able to find a few brands – two listed the first ingredient as water, followed by corn syrup. That’s alarming to me.

Increased corn allergies
Could this prevalence of corn in the diets of the youngest of our species, as well as being the number one thing Americans eat (because it’s in nearly everything), be contributing to the rise in corn allergies in this country? My guess is yes.

Returning to the study…
Sorensen shared with me some of her thoughts after doing months of research about HFCS and mercury:

In essence, we rely on a vastly complicated global food system that has many opportunities to go awry. And, not only is the chain of ingredients and manufacturing very complex, the foods we are eating are very complex and unlike anything people ate even two generations ago. HFCS is one story in this grand theater of food production. And, even though the studies are small, it’s clearly an actor that deserves more attention as a potential instigator in the public health drama we are currently witnessing. First of all, HFCS is an unnecessary part of the human diet. We thrived for millennia without it. Second, the caustic soda used to manufacture it can be made using mercury-free technologies. Safer alternatives exist and are used widely at this very moment. Third, even though the exposure is minute, it’s a repeat offender in the average US diet and should also be addressed in the context of combined daily exposures of modern day society.

The authors of both of the studies recognize the limitations of their findings. There is clearly much more research to be done in order to be able to understand what the true health implications may be. Maybe the impacts end up being nominal, but who wants to risk their child’s health and development waiting to find out when it’s such an unnecessary exposure?

Human development is a miracle. The journey from egg and sperm to adult (and even beyond) is a tumultuous and risky endeavor. Research is increasingly showing how very vulnerable the developing fetus is – susceptible to exquisitely small environmental exposures – so, why take an unnecessary chance? Why even allow antiquated technologies that are extremely pollutive; that have safer, economically feasible alternatives; that are completely unnecessary in food production? There is not a single piece of this story that makes sense.

What is the FDA’s response to the request for “immediate changes by industry and the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply?”

Sorensen says:

The FDA and industry are quickly trying to assuage the concerns spread by these reports, calling us irresponsible for setting false alarms. But, the FDA and industry are notorious at this point for coercing people into taking risks their instincts tell them not to. I’m not anti-FDA nor anti-industry; I simply believe in transparency of information. If you decide this risk is nominal, that’s your decision. For me, and my family, it’s not okay. And, it’s extremely simple to avoid.

How do you avoid HFCS?
You buy whole foods, not processed foods. You prepare meals from scratch. You grow your own vegetables and buy from local farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSAs. You look for certified organic foods. You read the labels and find alternatives to the products containing HFCS. It might seem like it’s in everything, but it’s not. There are brands of bread that don’t contain it (even at Costco), just as there are brands of soda, yogurt, and infant formula, but you have to read the labels to find out. Become a wise consumer and vote with your dollars.

Finding balance
It might seem like the best bet it to avoid HFCS at all costs, but even Sorensen admits that she lets her kids consume it once every now and then. “It’s a very small amount and I know I’m very careful about other exposures. Life is all about balance.” Yes, yes it is.

Lastly, if you are looking to reduce the HFCS in your or your family’s life, you might want to check out the blog A Life Less Sweet One family, no high fructose corn syrup, eating healthier. And here are a few more related posts: from Nature’s Child – HFCS, fortified with mercury, from Ask Moxie – Whoa: Mercury in HFCS, and (a really good one) from AngieMedia – High Fructose Corn Syrup is Dangerous for Many Reasons. A couple more: from Mom-101 – High fructose corn syrup contains mercury and other reasons I think we’re going to start feeding our kids air and from Her Bad MotherPoison In The Ketchup: This HFCS Scare Might Actually Make Me Start, You Know, Cooking From Scratch Or Something.

41 thoughts on “Another reason to steer clear of high fructose corn syrup – mercury!”

  1. When we lived in Iowa many years ago, we lived in a town that had a corn syrup processing plant. There is no more vile smell than that of corn being processed into syrup. None. Toxic diapers from my children, feedlots, nothing tops a corn syrup processing plant. I can still sense that smell in the back of my sinuses, and it’s been 12 years since we left. Hideous.

  2. After reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, I can never look at corn the same way again. I am already trying to cut down on packaged foods, but this is just one more reason. It’s also one more reason to be glad I’m breastfeeding. 😉

  3. “The EPA has determined that mercuric chloride and methylmercury are possible human carcinogens.”
    Oh great! Just like as caffeine!

  4. I use Baby’s Only Organic formula (to supplement my low milk supply) which uses organic brown rice syrup – its the only one I found without HFCS!

  5. Well put. About 5 years ago I worked with a woman who had weekly dialysis for toxic metal poisoning. They had no idea where she got the poisoning from and the levels wer such that they would not be toxic to everyone. Unfortunately she had some sort o condition that made her more susceptible than the average person. Her office was filled with HFCS laden snacks and beverages, in fact she lived on the stuff…and this news sure makes me wonder how much she consumed…

  6. Super article!
    What I find equally questionable is how each study (about anything) always finds that a certain ingredient is safe in “moderation.” Who is taking into account the cumulative effects of multiple toxins in our systems? Just another example of studying parts and not the whole.
    Go for “whole” as much as possible and we’ll be OK. Stumbled!!

  7. I don’t understand how any infant formula can be sweetened, as it is the nastiest tasting stuff in the world (this from a breastfeeding failure who used it with four babies).

    I wonder how much is in say, a granola bar as opposed to a tuna sandwich. Which I also do not let my children consume.

  8. Thanks for linking to Nature’s Child, Amy!

    This news has *got* to keep moving around. I’ve had my own personal war with the FDA, and I feel like this is one more chance to prove to the public that they will protect us. Failed again! argh.

    I’m linking back to you!

  9. great post, Amy. this is one reason why so much of what we eat now is made from scratch. sure, it takes more time and energy to do it… but when i think about the stuff that was going into our bodies just from things like cookies & bread bought at the store… eek.

  10. Isn’t it funny how we can be inundated with medication advertising (especially those promising a low incidence of sexual side effects), but yet this stuff sits on our shelves with very limited testing. I know, the meds get minimum testing these days too.

    It feels like David against Goliath. These companies have so much money, so much power. And they’re poisoning us.

    I still think autism has its roots in all this crap we’re putting in our bodies. Or a combination of all things–plastic, HFCS, pollution, global warming…

    Great topic. Well said. Keep on swinging that slingshot!

  11. I work with the Corn Refiners Association and want to point out a serious inaccuracy in the study that came out in Environmental Health that reports high fructose corn syrup contains mercury. The study appears to be based on outdated information since the corn industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study for several years. It’s important that Americans know that high fructose corn syrup is safe and high fructose corn syrup meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for the use of the term “natural.” Here’s a link to the statement by the Corn Refiners Association on the topic.

    FT – On behalf of the Corn Refiner’s Association

  12. Good info, Amy. HFCS is not common in Europe, we still like our sugar too much 🙂 But to be honest, I’d rather eat sugar any day!

    I had a look at the wikipedia article on HFCS and the closest we have is called isoglucose or glucose-fructose (although they are not always made from corn) in Europe but isoglucose is subject to a strict production quota therefore is not a popular ingredient.

    I must say though it is the one thing we notice whenever we’re in the States, how sweet everything is, even the bread! But baby formula?? that is a shocking abuse of consumers and babies, how can a baby eat something in moderation if it is their only food? Madness.

  13. it’s so hard to keep clear of HFCS. I’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma, and haven’t drunk/eaten anything with HFCS in it, but at the same time, I’ve been spending soo much more time reading labels, and getting disappointed, b/c so many of what I would have bought includes it…
    I usually don’t buy anything that’s processed, try to cook myself. but it’s still so disappointing.

  14. Great post and thanks for the mention! I think that these articles raise SO many questions. Is regular corn syrup contain mercury as well? I would love to know that because as prominent as HFCS is, regular corn syrup (which is mainly glucose and not as processed as HFCS) is in a whole lot more foods.

    HFCS is in a lot of foods, but once you commit yourself to avoiding it, you realize that there are still so many HFCS-free options out there – and more every day! More and more companies are realizing that it’s a great marketing tool to take HFCS out of their food and are proudly proclaiming “High Fructose Corn Syrup Free” on their labels (like Orowheat and Bullseye BBQ). The more we demand HFCS-free foods, and I think perhaps especially after this scandal, the more HFCS-free options we will see!

  15. oy vey. it just goes on and on…..

    i sat today with someone who works for the FDA. i’m reading “animal, vegetable, miracle” so i asked her about it, if she’d heard of it or read it. she said she hadn’t but that she feels like “grow your own” and “make your own” folks end up with more problems because she feels that the food supply is so “well-regulated.” she seemed like a very nice lady and it was a party so i didn’t make a case, but i find it really really really hard to believe with everything that i’ve read and seen.

  16. A couple of years ago when I was pregnant with my son I was diagnosed with erratic, high blood sugar. Through frequent finger-prick testing we determined that it was not true gestational diabetes, but rather high blood sugars caused by medication I must take (prednisone) as well as exposure to a particular “food”: HFCS. I could eat ice cream, bread, pasta, and potatoes to my stomach’s content, but I could not even consume a single jellybean with HFCS without sending my blood sugar sky high. I have avoided HFCS like the plague ever since.

  17. I saw this news article, but thank you for putting this all together for me 🙂 We avoid HFCS whenever we can, but this news will make me even more diligent. And one more reason to breastfeed!

  18. Trust me, I’m no fan of High fructose corn syrup on ANY level. But the Washington Post article is concerning in that many important facts were left out.

    HFCS is made with caustic soda. Caustic soda is Sodium Hydroxide and is also used to make soap. The method by which this chemical is made could include mercury cells. The method is specifically called castner-kellner process. If you look it up, it could provide a bit more information. The percentage of mercury that would stay with the soda is seems small for the chemical reaction. It’s the waste or by product that would be contaminated with mercury. NOT the caustic soda that is used to make HFCS. That doesn’t mean that would shouldn’t hit those plants hard for clean up but the HFCS does not contain the mercury. The other important point is that this process is not used nearly as much as it used to be. Perhaps I’ll try to make all this a bit more understandable in a blog post. I’ll make note here when the post is ready. Thanks Amy for the post as it reminded me to dig deeper on this issue.

  19. We’re working on putting together a list of responses to the arguments against the study and report; I’ll link to them when they are complete. But, regarding a couple that have been posted here, I’d like to make some comments.

    1) The Corn Refiner’s Association hired a consulting firm to assess the mercury study and report. No big surprise – the author, Dennis Paustenbach,
    refutes just about every word. And, in case you couldn’t guess, he and the firm have represented industry for decades making piles of money from the likes of Exxon and Monsanto.

    2) FT (from the Corn Refiner’s Association) claims the study is outdated and they don’t use these ingredients anymore. If so, when did you stop? Were you aware that you were using mercury contaminated ingredients when you applied for GRAS certification? Why would you ever even consider using mercury-grade ingredients in a food product?? If you have more recent studies showing your product does not contain mercury, we’d all love to see them.

    3) RE: Regina. You’re correct that the waste by-products of mercury cells is much more significant than the residue in the caustic soda, but there is a residue nonetheless. The chlor-alkali industry openly admits that any product processed using mercury cells will have a small amount of contamination. I don’t know why you’re saying the HFCS does not contain mercury when these two studies did indeed find mercury contamination. Finally, you are correct that this method is not used as much as it used to be – there are only four plants remaining in the US – but, we rely on a global food system. So, if HFCS manufacturers import caustic soda, unless they are explicit that it has not come from a plant using mercury-cells, we could still potentially have a contaminated food supply.

    I will post a link to a full list of FAQs very soon.

  20. Seen all this. Believe it and all, but…why do I care? Have there been any reported deaths from HFCS? Are we not living longer than ever? (Barring the original Adam and those types…)

  21. Very well posted. I would like to add, concerning the comment that said that HFCS did not contain mercury, it’s not a bad thing to avoid anyway, Don’t get me wrong, I love corn in it’s natural state but it’s everywhere. Any animal in these united states is fed corn whether or not it is it’s natural diet or not (guess what, not) which causes the big business’ running the cattle and poultry farms to stoop to hormones and antibiotics to keep their animals from getting sick because they are not giving them the proper feed, which in turn hurts our health. Then there’s big agriculture making a huge profit from all the farms growing corn and not cultivating more species of plants and necessary biodiversity that will be lost forever if all we ever grow is corn. Not to mention biofuels that take more energy than they produce to get them to market. Then there’s childhood obesity, I wonder where that comes from, could it be corn syrup? There are many reasons to avoid the stuff in many forms to send the message, stop the monopoly on corn. We choose health.

  22. How is brown rice syrup made? Is there any chance this may also contain mercury? Is brown rice syrup made in the U.S.? It is in products I’ve bought at the health food store, but i am just wondering if it is safe. My son is autistic. When he was first diagnosed I read so much online about mercury being a cause of autisim, so we no longer eat HFCS after reading about it containing mercury.

  23. What baby formula does NOT contain HFCS? My daughter lost her milk supply (stress-related) and must feed her baby with formula. At 4 months, the baby is in the 96% for weight at almost 18 pounds. She is very concerned. Any help?

  24. okay, like mercury’s not bad enough, but what about gmo’s, folks? isn’t that reason enough to stay away from one of the top gmo crops, corn?

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