A new study says mercury is commonly found in corn syrup.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, recently conducted a study of off-the-shelf corn syrup and found that almost half of the samples that they tested contain mercury. One third of the HFCS-bearing packaged food and drinks that they tested contained the poison. The use of mercury-contaminated caustic soda is apparently common in the manufacture of HFCS, which would explain its presence. The corn syrup industry disputes the study (which has not been peer-reviewed), saying that plants don’t use mercury anymore, but the authors of the study say that plants in Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, and West Virginia surely do.

I’ve lamented corn syrup here before. I’m not aware of any studies that demonstrate that it’s any worse for you than sugar (up until now), but I just think the stuff is trouble. There’s some confirmation bias going on here, but I’m glad to see some evidence appearing that supports my “HFCS == trouble” theory.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

7 replies on “A new study says mercury is commonly found in corn syrup.”

  1. To quote a comment posted elsewhere about this (http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3065148#post355689617):

    I’m no fan of HFCS, but leaving the numbers out is always misleading.

    The study showed that there is between 30 and 350 parts per TRILLION in the consumer items tested.

    Most notably, Coke comes in at 70 parts per trillion.

    For a scale reference, one part per trillion is a drop of water in 20 Olympic swimming pools. 70 drops or even 350 drops would be a couple teaspoons.

    There’s probably more mercury in most drinking water. I have occasion to see mercury numbers from coal-fired power plants. They are on the order of POUNDS of mercury per week. This stuff doesn’t just disappear.

    Canned tuna contains .118 ppm of mercury (per the EPA) or 1180 ppt! Coke contains 70 ppt.

    So HFCS containing any mercury isn’t really surprising to anyone, but making it sound like a health menace is just sensationalism.




    Another excellent quote from the Consumerist post about it: “You would have to eat more than 100 pounds of ketchup each day to even come close to reaching the EPA’s safe exposure level,” said a Con-Agra spokesperson.

    So, without further information, I don’t think the “(up until now)” in the headline can be justified. Either HFCS was worse than sucrose before this, or it wasn’t.

    All this HFCS hype just distracts from real problems, like the corn subsidies, urban planning’s relationship to our obesity problem, offgassing materials in the home and workplace, etc.

  2. That’s all probably true—and I’m glad you’ve explained that here—but there are a few aspects of this that I’m wary about.

    The first is that I recall President Bush making some pretty significant modifications to the acceptable level of mercury contamination, and did so without relying on any science, in order to keep power plants happy. The second is that I don’t have any patience for claims like “350 drops of water in 20 Olympic swimming pools,” because that doesn’t really tell me anything. What if that tablespoon’s worth (there are ~360 drops in a tablespoon) is uranium? What if I drink 20 olympic swimming pools’ worth of water over the course of my lifetime, and eventually ingest that uranium? Is a tablespoon of uranium a lot? Or a little? And the third aspect is that mercury builds up in the body, or so I understand, rather than being expelled. So my food might only be 350ppb mercury, but after a lifetime of exposure, won’t the level of mercury in my body build up in my body, enough to be toxic? If 1ppk is enough to sicken me (or 1,000,000 ppb), how much food would I need to eat at 350ppb to reach that point, and how long would that take?

    The answers to these may all be delightfully uninteresting, because it all amounts to good news. I don’t know. But I sure would like to find out. But right now, I’ve got a Motion to Quash to work on. :)

  3. I agree that teaspoons per 20 Olympic swimming pools isn’t a terribly worthwhile unit of measurement. But the 100 bottles of ketchup per day to get up past EPA standards seems pretty simple.

    Still, that was coming from Con Agra and the EPA, both pretty shady organizations, so lets put it more simply.

    Tilapia is one of the better types of fish, both environmentally as well as for mercury content. It’s got 0.01 PPM on average. That means that to get the same amount of mercury from this contaminated soda as you would from an 8oz piece of tilapia, you’d have to drink over 95 12oz cans of coke. Keep in mind that most healthy people could eat tilapia several times a day every day for the rest of their lives and never have problems with their mercury content.

    I don’t see how you can be concerned in this level of mercury content in food without also advocating making almost all seafood illegal. It’s ridiculous, and the only reason we’re discussing it’s HFCS, and people have an axe to grind with it.

  4. The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards have a drinking water criteria for total mercury at 2 ppb or 2 microgram per liter (ug/L). If a municipal water plant is found to have an exceedance they must:

    ¨Notify the local health department within 24 hours or the next business day.
    ¨Notify the public (consumers) of the MCL (maximum contaminant level) violation as instructed by the health
    ¨Provide a temporary ALTERNATE SUPPLY OF WATER FROM AN
    APPROVED SOURCE, such as bottled water.
    ¨Begin seeking a new source. When possible drill a new well into an acceptable
    aquifer or connect to municipal water if available.

    So yeah, I’m a little concerened here. The IATP sheet states that Quaker Oatmeal has 350 ppt of total mercury (.350 ug) and I’m asuming that to be per gram of food. The report from Environmental Health that test for Total Mercury in HFCS at the plants states people were eating an average of 50g of HFCS per day. Do the math, if your HFCS is coming from Quaker Oats, that’s 17.5ug of Mercury a day. So what does that mean if your drinking water is supposed to be under 2ug/L?

    I’m sure I’m off on conversions. Water is 1g = 1ml. Don’t what it is for HFCS. Still, this does not seem right.

  5. I’ve lamented corn syrup here before. I’m not aware of any studies that demonstrate that it’s any worse for you than sugar

    Aside from the ever-growing empirical evidence that HFCS is bad (correlation with population weight gain, increases in rate of diabetes), there is one undeniable reason to avoid it. HFCS-55 does not trigger appetite suppressing hormones, which means that people who consume large amounts of HFCS sweetened foods tend to eat much more food — mostly empty calories — than their bodies need. Glucose, which is released when the body processes natural sugar, triggers the body to release insulin and other hormones that help tell the body it’s getting full.

  6. I am very against mercury and am against the number of coal fired power plants in the U.S. and I know that our government should ban the sale of many species of fish with high mercury levels. It is wrong that Coca Cola has 60 parts per trillion of mercury and has failed to inform the American people of this fact. But many species of fish you can buy, such as grouper, have about .400 to .600 parts per million. That is the same as saying 400,000 to 600,000 parts PER TRILLION. So eating 12 ounces of certain fish will give you up to 10,000 times the mercury you would ingest from drinking a 12 ounce can of Coke! The amount will be EVEN MORE if you are unlucky enough to fish in certain contaminated lakes in the U.S.
    Canned Alaska salmon has almost no mercury, tilapia has more but still a very tiny amount, and there are many other fish that you could eat every week with no negative effects. The list is easily findable on the web.
    High fructose corn syrup is a terrible thing, but the amount of mercury in it is not my main concern.

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