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Mercury Rising... In Your Food

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Jan 27, 2009 at 13:30:00 PM PST

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Yesterday brought news so juicy no food blog could resist: There is mercury in high fructose corn syrup! While the initial report came from IATP (which I reported on here), it's made headlines on nearly every food blog. I'd like to share with you what everyone had to say - starting with my comments on it yesterday:

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found it in 9 out of 20 HCFS samples from 3 manufacturers. Then they tested 55 brand name foods and beverages and found mercury in 1/3 of them.

The mercury comes originally from chlor-alkali plants used to make caustic soda. The caustic soda is used, in turn, to separate corn starch from the corn kernal. The mercury can contaminate the caustic soda and then contaminate the HFCS. There IS newer, cleaner technology that the chlor-alkali plants can use (in fact, only 4 U.S. plants still use mercury and the rest don't).

The Green Fork called mercury "our melamine," pointing out that the FDA has known about the problem for years. I also enjoyed how they used the occasion to take a jab at the bullshit pro-HFCS campaign.

More below...

Jill Richardson :: Mercury Rising... In Your Food
Meanwhile, Civil Eats asked if High Fructose Corn Syrup is turning us into mad hatters. They used the occasion to expose how HFCS became so prevalent in our food supply in the first place:

The HFCS industry has been shrouded in mystery since it began in the 1970s, essentially the result of "get big or get out" record corn harvests and subsequent plummeting commodity prices for farmers.  What to do with all that excess corn? The answer was not to decrease yields, but to find a way to get that corn into our stomachs.  This has led to the proliferation of HFCS in nearly all processed foods you find in the grocery store.  The industry has lacked transparency, and our government has refused to mediate our current health crisis - an upswing in diabetes and obesity resulting from cheap calories like HFCS - with regulation.  So its not surprising that it took so long for the news to reach the public eye.

Organic Consumers Association stuck to the basics, posting the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy press release that announced the mercury problem - with all the relevant facts.

For its report "Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup," IATP sent 55 brand-name foods and beverages containing HFCS as the first or second ingredient to a commercial laboratory to be tested for total mercury. Nearly one in three products tested contained detectable mercury.

Tom Philpott wants to know if you'd like some heavy metal with that sweet roll. He starts by lamenting the ubiquity of HFCS in our food - particularly in foods kids eat:

For me, HFCS is at best a highly processed, lavishly subsidized, calorie-heavy, nutritional vacuum.

I recently visited a public high school in Boone, N.C. The main hall literally hummed with machines peddling variations on Coca-Cola's formula for success: fizzy water with artificial flavor, artificial color, added caffeine, and a jolt of HFCS. Other machines displayed snack "foods" tarted up with HFCS. Why are we feeding our kids this crap, again?

Philpott ends with a great detail - then-Senator Obama introduced a bill that would fix the problem that gets the mercury into HFCS in the first place (mercury use by chlor-alkali plants) a few years ago. Let's see if he pushes for that again - and gets it - now that he's the prez.

Last, The Ethicurean gives us their reaction to the news.

That much-debated sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, is going to need more than a pricey PR campaign to fix this one.

True! Better yet, The Ethicurean also analyzes which foods contained mercury in tests:

At the top of the list: Quaker Oatmeal to Go, Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce from Heinz, Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce, and Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars. Oy!

And, although soft drinks, the ├╝ber-users of HFCS, surprisingly weren't the worst offenders, I'm betting Coca-Cola Classic (coming in at 12th) gets consumed in far higher dietary quantities than Oatmeal to Go.

You can find the whole list of foods here. Or - for your convenience - I've listed them below.

1. Quaker Oatmeal to Go (350 ppt mercury)
2. Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce (Heinz) (300 ppt)
3. Hershey's Chocolate Syrup (257 ppt)
4. Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce (200 ppt)
5. Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars (180 ppt)
6. Manwich Bold Sloppy Joe (150 ppt)
7. Market Pantry Grape Jelly (130 ppt)
8. Smucker's Strawberry Jelly (100 ppt)
8. Pop-Tarts Frosted Blueberry (100 ppt)
10. Hunt's Tomato Ketchup (87 ppt)
11. Wish-Bone Western Sweet & Smooth (72 ppt)
12. Coca-Cola Classic (62 ppt)
13. Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt (60 ppt)
14. Minute Maid Berry Punch (40 ppt)
15. Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink (30 ppt)
15. Nesquik Chocolate Milk (30 ppt)
15. Kemps Fat Free Chocolate Milk (30 ppt)

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So disgusting and depressing (4.00 / 4)
Thanks for posting this.  

Krissake, why don't they just put little handgrenades in our food?  
- Or just mow us down with machine gun fire while we're at the checkstand at the market.
- Put razorblades in the kids' snacks.  

Sick sick bastards.

maybe the handgranades (4.00 / 3)
wouldn't be profitable enough?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
all I meant was (4.00 / 4)
it seems like they will do anything if it's profitable. If handgranades were profitable, I'm sure somebody would do it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
& this is what brings (4.00 / 2)
the most profit. to put little additions of poison, keeping ppl consuming for years, dying by degrees... but dying before they become a burden, thus maximizing profit.

come firefly-dreaming with me....

[ Parent ]
Nice one! (4.00 / 2)
Good review of all the different coverage. Thanks Jill. Will use some of this when I crosspost my LVL blog over to DailyKos.

There's a story on DKos (4.00 / 2)
And the comments section makes a pretty good case for the mercury levels reported here as being quite insignificant. 62 PPT for Coca Cola. Stream water has 70 PPT. Remember PPT is 1 Millionth of a PPM. I'm not sure about this we have to take a look at the volume of HFCS consumed compared to the PPT and also what the dangerous levels of mercury are.
Here's the story.. I'll look around and bring back some more info.

Web MD is critical (4.00 / 2)

Wallinga and colleagues caution that their list was "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.

The industry reps say they don't use caustic soda anymore, they claim the testing was done with old products. I hate siding with the Corn Refiners Sleeaze Association, but this Merc story seems overblown. That being said the real story on high fructose corn syrup is way underdone. And I'm glad this Mercury scare has brought attention to this topic. Hopefully it's more than a one day news story!

[ Parent ]
all good points (4.00 / 2)
and yeah - these are tiny amounts of mercury - although it's worrisome that they are there because some people eat and drink this stuff nonstop.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
I'm trying to find out the answer (4.00 / 2)
Tuna has an avg of .353 ppm mercury and we know that's bad.

.353/1,000,000 = 353/1,000,000,000 = 353,000/1,000,000,000,000


So then we're comparing the Oatmeal to Go here at 300 with tuna at 353,000.

And yet - with all that said - I am still enjoying the PR disaster for the Corn Refiners Association that this news is becoming.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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