Consumer confidence in the US Food and Drug Administration is in a fast decline due to many questionable decisions lately including their responses to BPA, melamine in infant formula, and their recent step backwards on protecting women and children from methylmercury in fish by promoting increased consumption. Here's one more offense to add to the list: they've known for several years that high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener almost ubiquitous in the US food supply, is often contaminated with mercury. And, they've done nothing to either address the problem or warn consumers.
Mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), according to a new article published earlier this week in the scientific journal Environmental Health. A separate study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) detected mercury in nearly one-third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second highest labeled ingredient--including products by Quaker, Hershey's, Kraft and Smucker's.
How does it get there? Apparently HFCS (which industry maintains is a "natural" product) is processed using caustic soda, among many other ingredients including genetically engineered enzymes. Caustic soda is made at chlorine plants, some of which use an antiquated technology that relies on mercury cells. No one denies that products made using this technology can become contaminated with mercury. Yet, HFCS manufacturers are using mercury-grade caustic soda, the FDA has known since 2004 that HFCS was often contaminated with mercury, and still no one is doing anything about it.
Mercury is an extremely potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage to a developing brain at exquisitely low levels. It can also impact the immune system, cardiovascular system, and other organs. Methylmercury is monitored in fish, but currently no other food products are regulated for any type of mercury contamination.
"Mercury is toxic in all its forms," said IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., and a co-author in both studies. "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 FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply."
Ninety percent of U.S. chlorine production no longer uses mercury cells and the four remaining could eliminate thousands of tons of mercury pollution annually if they switched to a cleaner technology. In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama introduced legislation to phase out all mercury cell use in chlorine plants by 2012. He re-introduced it in 2007. Earlier in 2008, a version of this legislation also was introduced in the House of Representatives. It's time to pass this legislation or, given his new authority, President Obama could sign an Executive Order mandating the phase out. Read more about President's Obama commitment to phase out mercury and make your voice heard through the White House's official website.
Still, we rely on a global food system and HFCS could potentially be made using mercury-grade caustic soda from non-US facilities. So, HFCS manufacturers must demand ingredients that have not been made using mercury cell technology.
And, in the meantime, you can protect yourself and your family by avoiding products that contain HFCS. It's as easy as reading the label.