Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mercury in High Fructose Corn Syrup ---Autism: What If!

The Cockroach Catcher was an accidental resident of Barbados for nearly two years and saw the tail end of the sugar cane industry there. Alas, high labour cost and the general switch over to sweetening with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) means that cane sugar produced in the traditional manner can only remain as a novelty item that is sold in souvenir shops at a high price and probably never consumed by the purchaser.

What is little known is that High Fructose Corn Syrup is produced by a complex chemical process involving enzymes and chemicals such as caustic soda and hydrochloric acid.

In the
Washington Post yesterday:

Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury

“Almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient, according to two new U.S. studies.

“HFCS has replaced sugar as the sweetener in many beverages and foods such as breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS, but teens and other high consumers can take in 80 percent more HFCS than average.

"Mercury is toxic in all its forms. 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 [U.S. Food and Drug Administration-FDA] to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply," the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Dr. David Wallinga, a co-author of both studies, said in a prepared statement.

“In the first study, published in current issue of Environmental Health ,researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS.

“And in the second study, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a non-profit watchdog group, found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was found most commonly in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.” The Washington Post reported.

here; PDF of the full text here.

This is serious matter, considering that most food items sold in the US that are vaguely sweet contain HFCS, from so called fruit juices to tomato ketchups to health granola bars, jams and cereals, not to mention soda drinks.

The frightening part of the story was that the FDA knew about this since 2005, yes 2005.

One of the lead authors, Renee Dufault, was working for the FDA when she reported her findings that mercury was detected in 45% of HFCS products. No explanation was given as to why the FDA kept quiet. In March 2008 she retired from the FDA and decided to conduct further research for Environmental Health, using fresh samples randomly taken off shelves in retail shops in the latter part of 2008.

The discovery of the complex chemical process for converting corn starch into HFCS came at a time when corn based oil product was in commercial decline because of health concerns raised. Despite the highly complicated process involving three enzymes (believed to be genetically modified and therefore highly stable) , the cost of producing HFCS is still much lower than that of producing sugar from cane.

Where did the mercury come from?

The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP) report
is very educational and is worth a read here.

I quote from the Executive Summary:

“We live in a truly global food system. Our system typically is geared more toward producing lots of cheap calories, and then selling those calories to consumers, than it is toward meeting other goals like reducing fossil fuel use or producing food that is healthy.

“In stark relief, new science shows just how blind to healthfulness some processed food makers have been. Just published online in the journal, Environmental Health
, is a science commentary reporting that mercury was found in 9 of 20 samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a common sweetener of foods and beverages. The HFCS came from three different manufacturers.

“Mercury is a potent brain toxin that we know accumulates in fish and seafood, although diet is not the only route by which we are exposed. When babies are exposed to elevated mercury in the womb, their brains may develop abnormally, impairing learning abilities and reducing IQ. For these youngest children, the science increasingly suggests there may be no “safe” level of exposure to mercury. And yet for decades an increasingly common ingredient in processed foods, HFCS, has been made using mercury-grade caustic soda.”

“……. In fact, we detected mercury in nearly one in three of the 55 HFCS-containing food products we tested. They include some of the most recognizable brands on supermarket shelves: Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait.

"No mercury was detected in the majority of beverages tested. That may be important since sweetened beverages are one of the biggest sources of HFCS in our diets.

"On the other hand, mercury was found at levels several times higher than the lowest detectable limits in some snack bars, barbecue sauce, sloppy joe mix, yogurt and chocolate syrup.”…..

Caustic soda and hydrochloric acid can be manufactured cheaply from sea water using an electrochemical process aided by mercury cells.

A longtime enigma of these plants has been their “missing mercury.” The nine mercury cell plants operating in 2003 reported consuming 38 tons of mercury, but emitting only eight tons into the environment. What happened to the other 30 tons? The plants could not account for that. This month’s Environmental Health study suggests that the missing tons of mercury may have ended up as impurities in the plants’ products such as caustic soda that are then added to the food supply.

It is scientifically possible to use a non-mercury based method and in fact one senator tried to introduce legislation some time back to force the industry to stop using the mercury method. He unfortunately failed.

That senator happened to be Barack Obama, now president of the United States. Could that be why the papers were published soon after his inauguration? I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.

In the report it was pointed out that despite major concerns over the years that fructose, being only metabolised by the liver, may have serious health implications, HFCS is favoured by manufacturers because the products sweetened by HFCS have a long shelf life. Could this in fact be due to the preserving property of the mercury? Even microbes do not like mercury!

The corn lobby has always been very strong in the US and the FDA even allows food sweetened with HFCS to be labelled natural. Natural?

Here is the table extracted from the
Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy report. It indicates the food products for which total mercury was detected, highest to lowest. (Measurements are in parts per trillion.)

What if the Cockroach Catcher was wrong?! Perhaps the level of mis-diagnosis of Autism in the United States in recent years might not have been high as speculated. There was just too much mercury in the food and drinks consumed by the American people! So even removing mercury from vaccines was not much help. Mercury readily passes from mothers to babies in breast milk.

Perhaps corn should be reserved for bio-fuel and Barbados could start growing sugar cane again. Of course non-mercury method could be used but the cost would be much higher.

What if the rate of Autism would begin to level off and even decline! What if indeed!

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Anonymous said...

Wow! This is really scary. FDA!!!

Anonymous said...

No wonder the bought cake in the US lasts for ever.

An Autistic Person's Blog said...

Interesting. Never before had I known that mercury could appear in more than one place.