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Mercury tainted HFCS in produce, say researchers

By Jane Byrne, 28-Jan-2009

Related topics: Quality, Safety, Hygiene, Processing Technology, Safety & Regulation, Contamination

A policy group is calling on the US food safety regulator and industry to make changes to practices as two studies claim the food supply is being contaminated by mercury tainted high fructose corn syrup.

According to a new article published this week in the journal, Environmental Health, mercury was found in nearly 50 per cent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

And a separate study by the US Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) claims mercury was detected in nearly one-third of 55 brand name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second highest labelled ingredient, including, it claims, products by Quaker, Hershey’s, Kraft and Smucker’s.

IATP’s Dr David Wallinga, MD and co-author of both studies, said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food and beverage manufacturers must act now to eliminate what he claims is avoidable mercury contamination of food and drink products.

“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,” he added.

HFCS consumption

HFCS is found in sweetened beverages, breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS, according to the IATP.

It is said to have a similar sweetness and flavour profile to sucrose, but able to better control microbial growth and crystallization, and is also considered to help retain texture in canned and baked goods, promote controlled browning in baked goods and cereals, remain stable in temperature fluctuations and to blend easily with other ingredients.

‘Cause of contamination’

Wallinga said that, for decades, HFCS has been made using mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants. The caustic soda is used, among other things, to separate corn starch from the corn kernel, he explained.

The use of mercury cells to produce caustic soda can contaminate it, and ultimately HFCS, with mercury, continued Wallinga.

Test outcomes

The IATP said that it 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. Mercury was most prevalent in HFCS containing dairy products, followed by dressings and condiments,” said the Institute.

In the Environmental Health article, the researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS in tests conducted in 2005.

The authors concluded that possible mercury contamination of food chemicals like HFCS was not common knowledge within the food industry that frequently uses the sweetener.

Industry defence

However, the industry body, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), said that the study in Environmental Health is misleading.

“The study appears to be based on outdated information since the corn industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years."

A spokesperson for the CRA told FoodProductionDaily.com that it is important that consumers understand that HFCS is safe.

According to a recent statement by the FDA, HFCS may be labelled 'natural' when synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing.

Mercury-free sweetener

The IATP claims that while most chlorine plants around the world have switched to newer, cleaner technologies, many still rely on the use of mercury cells.

However, mercury-free HFCS ingredients exist, added Wallinga. He said that food companies just need a good push to only use those ingredients.

Source: Environmental Health 2009 8:2 26 JanuaryPublished online ahead of print - doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-8-2Title: Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugarAuthors: Dufault, R; LeBlanc, B; Schnoll, R; Cornett, C; Schweitzer, L; Patrick, L; Hightower, J; Wallinga, D; Lukiw, W.

Source: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) 26 January 2009Title: Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn SyrupAuthors: Wallinga, D; Sorensen, J; Mottl, P; Yablon, B.