The corn lobby would have us believe that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was a safe, natural food additive. In fact it's highly processed, and a recent study discovered that it often contains mercury. Really, there are a couple of surprises here:
Surprise #1: An Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) study tested 55 HFCS-containing foods and found that almost 1/3 of them contained mercury.
Surprise #2: The FDA has known about the mercury-HFCS link since 2005 and did nothing about it.
Mercury is a heavy metal that builds up in the body over time. That means that even small amounts of the stuff is harmful, since it tends to stick around in your system. According to the study authors, mercury can "damage many organ systems, including the heart, immune and nervous systems." Mercury is especially dangerous to small children, which is why pregnant women are advised to avoid fish. Maybe they should also be avoiding sodapop, most conventional breads, and most other processed foods, as well?
The mercury in HFCS is a side effect of how it's made. During the processing, manufacturers use caustic soda, a chlorine derivative, to separate out the corn starch, and a common type of caustic soda often contains the heavy metal.
The press release that accompanies the IATP study revealed that an earlier study back in 2005 discovered mercury in HFCS, and the FDA basically ignored the results. This study only recently got published in the journal Environmental Health, but one of that 2005 study's authors was Renee Dufault, who was working for the FDA in 2005. According to the IATP press release (pdf):
In the Environmental Health article, Dufault et al. found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. Dufault was working at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when the tests were done in 2005. She and co-authors conclude that possible mercury contamination of food chemicals like HFCS was not common knowledge within the food industry that frequently uses the sweetener. While the FDA had evidence that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury four years ago, the agency did not inform consumers, help change industry practice or conduct additional testing.
Mercury is a health hazard, but if you're pregnant or have children, it's even more important to avoid the stuff. While kids' bodies are still developing heavy metals like mercury can cause serious health and developmental problems down the road.
So what can we do about it? You might take a minute to sign the petition to Congress that's calling for swift action on this issue. In the meantime, it's probably best to try to avoid foods containing HFCS, if you weren't already. It's tough to cut out high fructose corn syrup - it's in the vast majority pre-packaged food! Still, with some diligent label-reading, you can get it out of your kitchen.