Don't you hate coming up with the perfect comeback in an argument, just too late, like after it's already over and you got spanked? The French call it l'esprit d'escalier, the wit of the staircase. And the poor chumps in those high fructose corn syrup commercials call it, "Yeah, well how 'bout freakin' mercury?!"
That's right, two FDA studies in the new issue of Environmental Health found mercury in almost half the high fructose corn syrup samples from US manufacturers and in a third of the 55 hfcs-containing name brand foods it tested.
The problem, of course, as anyone who grew up watching their grandmother make HFCS at home, is that caustic soda is used throughout the process to balance the pH and to separate out the corn starch from the kernel. And much caustic soda is made in mercury-chlorine plants. Not the kind of plants that grow in your backyard, but plants nonetheless.
So basically, the FDA's smoking gun isn't a mushroom cloud, but a deadly neurotoxin that threatens everyone from the womb till the day they have to drop out of the Broadway production of Speed The Plow. And because the tests were conducted in 2005, the Huffington Post gets headlines like "Our Melamine: There's Mercury in High Fructose Corn Syrup, and the FDA Has Known for Years".
Only--dammit, I hate to do this, I really do, but the outrage-addicted, Bush-addled hippies and lazy-ass reporters leave me no choice--holy crap, people, has anyone read the press release, much less the actual report?
The findings were announced on Monday by their sponsor, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a sustainable farming advocacy group. The FDA did not conduct either study: "[Lead author on the EH paper Renee] Dufault was working at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when the tests were done in 2005." Note the wording? Dufault was an environmental health officer [EHO] who, as the paper puts it,
used additional government resources to collect HFCS samples from different manufacturers and collaborate with individuals outside of the federal government to analyze the samples for total mercury content.In other words, when manufacturers wouldn't give a forensic chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville raw HCFS to test, Dufault had an FDA colleague collect some samples for her.
The other study of name brand products was not from the FDA, either. It was conducted by the IATP. And it was not peer-reviewed, but it was published and announced alongside the Environmental Health paper in an attempt to capture some of the glow from that study's scientifically credible halo. It's a strategy by the IATP to make the EH paper more newsworthy and relevant, which may be successful PR, but it's sloppy science and irresponsible journalism.
But beyond the press release manipulation, how is Dufault, et al's paper? In a word, rambling. Especially if you're someone accustomed to reading terse scientific papers, the Dufault report is remarkable for its length; It's a 17-page play-by-play of the entire chlorine factory-to-juicebox saga. And because Environmental Health is an "open access" journal, it's available in all its unformatted glory. [pdf] I'm not sure of the significance, if any, but the paper, "Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar," is categorized as a "commentary," not "research." Maybe that means the paper's findings were not reviewed for their scientific validity. As a leader in developing a new model of open scientific discourse, EH's peer review policy doesn't actually worry about science per se: "Peer reviewers are asked to indicate which articles they consider to be especially interesting or significant." [emphasis added for judgmental effect]
Which doesn't mean that I doubt Dufault et al's findings, such as they are. The "pilot study" detected mercury in nine of 20 HCFCS samples collected from three manufacturers in one week in 2005:
Mercury was not detected in eleven out of twenty HFCS samples analyzed (detection limit 0.0005 micrograms mercury/g). A single manufacturer produced nine of these eleven samples. There samples were likely manufactured using caustic soda produced by a membrane chlor-alkali plant which does not use mercury in its manufacturing process. Eight of the nine HFCS samples exhibiting mercury levels between 0.065 micrograms to 0.570 micrograms mercury/g HFCS were produced by the two other manufacturers. This could indicate the use of mercury grade caustic soda or hydrochloric acid in the manufacturing processes used by these two manufacturers. Such use would account for the mercury in these HFCS products.So the bottom line is decidedly unsexy: get two HFCS manufacturers to switch caustic soda suppliers. Why would they possibly object to that? Maybe because "Current international food processing standards allow 1.0 micrograms mercury/g caustic soda." Aha. so the pilot shows that 7-57% of that allowable mercury can be transferred to HFCS, the next stage of production.
And that toxic gets mixed into our food supply, and we're loading up on mercury because everything we eat has HFCS in it, right? As the Washington Post and many other media outlets reported, the IATP "found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was most common in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments."
Sure enough, the IATP reports "total mercury detected" in 17 products from 30 to a whopping 350 ppt. Wait, ppt? You mean parts per trillion? A nanogram? So again, 5-50% roughly 5-50% of the mercury in HFCS [30-350 ng vs 67-570 ng] might be transferred through to some food products. For reference, a 6-oz. can of white tuna has 52.7 micrograms, or 52,700 nanograms.
But there's something else odd about the IATP findings. Of the 17 products with mercury, five are chocolate milk or chocolate syrup, and five are barbecue sauce or ketchup, i.e., straight HFCS with natural and artificial flavors added.
So if you want to freak out over the evil Bush-era FDA, which stood idly by as the Corn Industrial Complex poisoned our children, that's your prerogative. But if you're really so concerned about mercury and HFCS, just cut out the Nestle's Quik and make your own damn barbecue sauce.
Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury [washpost.com]
Much High Fructose Corn Syrup Contaminated With Mercury, New Study Finds [ iatp.org, PDF]
Commentary | Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar [ehjournal.net]