CRA challenges studies finding mercury in HFCS, food products

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1/30/2009-In a study published in Environmental Health, researchers say they have found mercury in almost 50% of samples of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Conducted in 2005, the researchers found detectable levels (0.005–0.570 mg mercury per g of HFCS) in nine out of 20 samples of commercial HFCS from three different manufacturers. “With daily per capita consumption of HFCS in the U.S. averaging about 50 g and daily mercury intakes from HFCS ranging up to 28 mg, this potential source of mercury may exceed other major sources of mercury especially in high-end consumers of beverages sweetened with HFCS,” researchers stated in the study.

In a more recent study conducted by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), detectable levels of mercury were found in 17 out of 55 tested food products. All of these products listed HFCS as first or second on their list of ingredients. Some of the 17 products included Quaker Oatmeal to Go bars, Pop-Tarts Frosted Blueberry, Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt, and Kemps Fat Free Chocolate Milk. One of the authors of the study, Dr. David Walling, cautioned that the list is “just a snapshot in time; we only tested one sample of each product. That clearly is not sufficient grounds to give definitive advice to consumers.”

HFCS is used as a sweetener by food manufacturers to stabilize food products and enhance product shelf life. It is the end product from a corn wet-milling process that involves a number of steps in a product line that yields corn oil, animal feed, starch products, and corn sweeteners. According to the study in Environmental Health, several chemicals are required to make HFCS, including caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, alpha-amylase, glucoamylase, isomerase, filter aid, powdered carbon, calcium chloride, and magnesium sulfate. Certain forms of caustic soda and hydrochloric acid may contain mercury.

Neither study specifies the form of mercury present. In fact, the IATP researchers only tested for total mercury levels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only has a “reference dose,” or upper limit, for methylmercury intake, but not for other forms of mercury. According to the EPA, methylmercury is particularly risky to a baby’s developing brain and nervous system. In addition, the IATP study does not prove that the mercury found came from the HFCS in the products.

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has released a statement challenging the relevance of the information published in the Environmental Health study. According to the CRA’s President, Audrae Erickson, “This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two reagents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free reagents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances.”

Erickson went on to state that HFCS is safe and that the Food and Drug Administration formally listed it as safe for use in food in 1983 and then again in 1996. Additionally, the FDA has stated that HFCS can even be labeled “natural” when synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing.

Environmental Health study download (pdf)

IATP press release

IATP study download (pdf)

Corn Refiners Association statement

WebMD article

ChemRisk release



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