January 28, 2009

DT WTF Wednesday: Studies Find Mercury In High Fructose Corn Syrup

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]

16 Comments

This is a corn syrup commercial spoof waiting to happen! And I'm glad I try to avoid it as much as I do.

Man, do we need another thing to freak out about? Ugh.

Never mind thimerosal, the HFCS/mercury/autism kerfuffle will launch in 3... 2... 1...

Nice comment "Chris"

Anyway... I never saw this in the news.

We suck as much as the rest of the world in poisoning our own people I guess. Just when thing started to look better, we eat a PB&J and a Coke and get leathal dose of Mercury!

I guess I should stop playing with broken old thermometers now..

Did you read the comeback from the corn industry? They claimed the study is looking at outdated methods of production and they don't do it anymore... not once do they mention how the mercury got into the actual samples of HFCS tested though, reducing their entire argument to basically "LOOK! OVER THERE!"

Thankfully most of the sweet stuff with HCFS in it is revolting anyway... I could be imagining this but I find that compared to real sugar it leaves a weird aftertaste in my mouth. So where do I get some of that Mexican or Kosher Coke in Canada? :)

only if you drink YooHoo by the quart and eat Heinz barbecued tuna steaks 3x/day

I guess this is a bitch-slap to that commercial where the actress, being all snarky, sez, what, "everything in moderation".

Yeesh. Good thing I only drink Diet Dr. Pepper, distilled from cold mountain streams.

Little Mary Sunshine gets one coke a year. Only at the ball park. This way, I can also always tell Chang & Eng that they're too young.

Greg - like the new interface - now I can actually SEE the Captcha so I can comment. I promise not to abuse the privilege!

"Chris's" spam has been zapped.

Ok, look at it this way. There is Hg in our HFCS. There Hg in our water. There is something wrong with every thing we eat. I'm not saying that I'm advocating anything, but c'mon people. When are we going to stop becoming such paranoid people? Yes, Hg (mercury) is a problem, definitely for children and pregnant women. If in high enough doses, for adult men too (unless he is a really fat bastard - hitting 350 lbs or more). According to the World Health Organization (also known as WHO - as in WHO cares?), "safe" mercury consumption is 1.5 micrograms (or 0.0015 mg) per kilogram (or 2.2 lbs) of body weight. The "average" adult consumes roughly 63 POUNDS of sugar in the form of HFCS. So I weigh 240 lbs or 109 kg. So I can "safely" take in 163.5 micrograms (or 0.1635 mg) of Hg. There is no way in hell (if what people are insinuating about most if not all HFCS having Hg is true) that I can avoid Hg poisoning. So if all of the HFCS has mercury, which is what people are starting to say, then we're all screwed! So why not go out with enjoyment knowing that at least I got to drink my soda!

Or, here is an idea.... why don't we all gain as much weight as possible?? If we are all so damn fat then we don't have to worry about mercury anymore!

Keep in mind, a good portion of my morning was just wasted by reading that stupid report, and the samples in question were all taken BEFORE January of 2008. Some were taken as early as 2004. If you are going to publish a report like that, at least have MORE RECENT DATA! Otherwise you are wasting our time, and making people go nuts trying to eliminate everything that they could eat. Because, unless you have a 6 to 7 digit income, you can't really afford to exclusively buy organic or "healthy" (can we say no real decent taste?) foods. Sure, city folks can "brag" about eating organic or "healthy," but what about the folks in the more rural areas who don't have access to such health food stores???? This is a waste of my time........ I'm not going there right now....

SORRY SO LONG DADDYTYPES!!!!!!!!!

Wow, a blogger who doesn't just read the headline and vomit ominous screeds back at us? I'm impressed!

If we listened to every scary thing envirohippies and the food- and medicine-safety lobby try to scare us with, we'd be living out in the woods with our kids, naked, plastered with bug bites, fending off rabid squirrels for nuts, scraping the bird poo off berries and drinking out of streams, trying not to think about all the animals who've taken a dump in or around the water. And our kids would be dying in far greater numbers than would the ketchup-guzzling hordes living in town.

Thanks for reading the study and doing the homework to make that point in better detail than even the "pros," who for the most part just regurgitated a press release from a group of scaremongers.

I'm all for feeding my child good wholesome food, and no fan of stuff like high fructose corn syrup, etc., but we live in an industrial society and we need to learn to weigh and accept acceptable risk versus the stuff that is truly and immediately and irreversibly dangerous. This "scare" doesn't fall in that category. Not even by a longshot.

Hey, wait a minute..... I'm from the country, and know what it's like to try to survive in the woods.... (Thanks to Boy Scouts on that one... LOL)... city folk.....

You are forgetting it's not just the rabid squirrels out there, but the rabbits with their sharp, pointy teeth.... (Thanks to Monty Python for that one...)

And yes, I think I have broken my brain with the reading of that ridiculously stupid report..... One will notice that parents have the uncanny ability to panic without actually doing research on it. But with that being said, I think I'm going to put on some fascist cartoon like Dora or Diego or something else that will make my kid's brain rot.... Sesame Street is EVIL!

(Please note the sarcasm here...)

dude, you're commenting on yourself. If you have a blog, just post the link.

Many apologies, no offense was meant. Thanks for the suggestion!

"...YooHoo by the quart and eat Heinz barbecued tuna steaks 3x/day"

In showbiz they call that "The Jeremy Piven Diet", I believe.

sushi's off the hook!

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