The truth behind the buzz about this controversial sweetener.
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High-Fructose Corn Syrup and Mercury
Does all HFCS contain mercury?
In January, consumers received a double dose of troubling news about HFCS and mercury, the heavy metal that even in small amounts poses a neurological risk for young children, babies and growing fetuses. First, a study in Environmental Health reported that mercury was found in nine of 20 commercial samples of HFCS tested in 2005. Then the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reported that it had found “detectable levels of mercury” in 17 of the 55 HFCS-rich foods it tested last fall, including barbecue sauce and cereal bars.
The reports raised the possibility that foods other than fish may contain mercury. “Even if only a small portion of HFCS is contaminated, that’s a really important source of exposure we hadn’t counted on,” says IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., an author of both studies.
But the studies could not connect the dots on how the mercury got into the HFCS or the foods. The authors theorized that it came from caustic soda, an ingredient used to make HFCS. Although about 10 percent of U.S. plants that produce caustic soda use a process that includes mercury, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), is adamant that no mercury-based technology is used in North American HFCS production. “The [Environmental Health] report is based on outdated information,” she says. In late March, the CRA issued a report indicating that third-party testing on HFCS from all production plants in the U.S. and Canada did not find detectable levels of mercury in any of the samples analyzed.
It is conceivable that the mercury IATP detected in the foods could have come from sources other than HFCS. Mercury is ubiquitous in our environment: it’s in water and soil. What we can say with certainty at this point is that mercury isn’t required to make HFCS, and not all HFCS contains mercury.