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Politics of the Plate: High-Mercury Corn Syrup

01.30.09
If you didn’t already avoid high-fructose corn syrup, here’s a good reason to start: Scientists have found mercury in the sweetener and in a frightening number of foods containing it.

Some consumers of processed foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), as most are, have been ingesting at least one ingredient not listed on the label: mercury.

In an article published this week in the scientific journal Environmental Health, a research team led by Renee Dufault of United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota reported that mercury was found in 45 percent of HFCS samples they tested. Mercury at any level is considered a neurological toxin that can be particularly harmful to developing fetuses and young children.

Contamination was not limited to laboratory vials of pure HFCS. Publication of the article coincided with the release of a report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy showing that one-third of 55 brand-name foods and beverages containing HFCS also contained mercury. Mercury is sometimes used in the production of caustic soda, one of the chemicals necessary to manufacture HFCS from corn.

“Given how much high-fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered,” said David Wallinga, a physician who works for the institute. “We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination.”

Unless the FDA changes course dramatically under the Obama administration, that isn’t likely to happen. Recently Wallinga discovered that the agency had known about mercury in HFCS for four years. Not only did it fail to get the contamination removed, it didn’t even inform consumers that it existed.

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