Sugar-coated Mercury Contamination

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Most of us know by now that eating mercury is bad for you, and we know that mercury contamination is a risk in certain types of fish. But did you know this neurologically damaging heavy metal could also be lurking in everything from cereal to ketchup?

A new pilot study, led by a scientist who was then at the FDA, reports that mercury contamination may be disturbingly prevalent in high-fructose corn syrup, potentially adding up to 28 micrograms of mercury to the average American's daily diet. Read more details in the latest issue of Environmental Health.

It's not clear how much mercury it takes to cause harm, but experts warn that children and fetuses are particularly susceptible to damage from mercury-contaminated fish. The main point we should take away from the Environmental Health study is that consumers deserve more information. The researchers sum it up well:

..this potential source of mercury may exceed other major sources of mercury, especially in high-end consumers of beverages sweetened with HFCS . Food products that contain a significant amount of HFCS should be tested for mercury contamination in the end product and the public should be informed of any detections. Clearly, more research is needed to determine the extent of mercury exposure in children from mercury contaminated HFCS in food products.

Another study, by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, detected mercury in 31 percent of popular food and beverage products packed with high-fructose corn syrup, including Quaker instant oatmeal, Hershey's chocolate syrup, Nutri-Grain bars and classic Coke. (Complete list here, though you should take it with a grain of salt since the IATP is an advocacy group and this was not peer-reviewed.)

One of the ingredients used to make America's favorite sweetener is something called caustic soda (it separates the corn starch from the kernel). But caustic soda comes from industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants—and in the United States, several of those plants still rely on mercury cells in their manufacturing process even though cleaner alternatives exist.

The obvious solution is to phase out mercury-cell manufacturing, something President Obama tried to do when he was still a senator from Illinois. (Europe is already doing it.) But I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to try phasing high-fructose corn syrup out of our diets, either, since it can lead to obesity and a higher risk of diabetes.

For more on this, including some more opinionated views, check out Tom Philpott at The Gristmill, Janet Majure at The Ethicurean, and Leslie Hatfield at The Green Fork.

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