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Health Food News: High Fructose Corn Syrup At Risk Of Mercury Contamination

If all the studies showing the risk of obesity and Metabolic Syndrome don’t put you off foods containing large amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), there’s more bad health food news to consider.  In a recent study made for The Institute For Agriculture And Trade Policy (IATP), detectable mercury was found in many products made with HFCS.

It would seem this toxic substance has been there all along, but before this, nobody thought to look for it.

How Does The Mercury Get In High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Short answer: Mercury gets in HFCS during the highly specialized manufacturing process that utilizes enzymes and other materials, including caustic soda.

( Note: This is a rather complicated subject. If you find the explanations more technical than you’re interested in, at least read the Summary and Recommendations sections at the bottom.)

Longer answer: It’s a complex process to make high fructose corn syrup. At the beginning of this process, caustic soda is used to help separate the corn starch from the corn kernel. It’s also used throughout the manufacturing process, along with hydrochloric acid, to maintain the proper pH levels.

And it’s the caustic soda that’s the root of the problem.

Making Caustic Soda

Before caustic soda can be used in the manufacture of high fructose corn syrup, the caustic soda itself must be manufactured. Caustic soda, technically known as sodium hydroxide, and more commonly known as lye, can be produced by three different methods:

  1. Mercury Cell Process
  2. Diaphragm cell process
  3. Membrane cell process

The mercury cell process is the one that’s a problem. T

o simplify how that process works, salt water or brine is pumped through a vat of mercury.

A little more technical explanation is that the caustic soda is made by first reducing sodium ions to sodium metal, which then forms an amalgam with a mercury cathode. The sodium is reacted with water to produce the caustic soda.

Making caustic soda by mercury cell process.
Diagram of mercury electrolysis aparatus for the production of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda).

However you look at it, during this process the caustic soda can be contaminated with mercury, a toxic substance.

Mercury In Caustic Soda Means Mercury In HFCS

While many manufactuers in the US have switched to manufacturing caustic soda by the membrane or diaphragm cell processes, there are still a few using the mercury cell process.

Additionally, many manufacturers in other countries are still using the mercury cell process, and then sell their caustic soda to manufactuers of high fructose corn syrup in the US. That leads us right back to HFCS being made with mercury contaminated caustic soda, which means HFCS foods are by default also contaminated with the toxic substance.

Contaminated Or Not Contaminated, That’s The Question

There is no way of knowing if the high fructose corn syrup in the food you’re eating was made with caustic soda produced by the mercury cell process or by the safer membrane or diaphragm cell process. (And I have to wonder about the safety of the diaphragm cell process, since the diaphragm is often made with abestos fibers, another known health hazard.)

Therefore, there’s no way of knowing if there are high fructose corn syrup health risks because that  particular food is contaminated by mercury in the high fructose corn syrup.

Study Finds Mercury Contaminated Foods

The study done for the IATP that’s making health food news found detectable mercury in 20 of the 55 samples tested, or put another way, 36% of the foods were contaminated with mercury.

These included many name brand foods such as Quaker Oatmeal To Go, Jack Daniel’s BBQ Sauce, Hershey’s Syrup, Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars, Pop Tarts Frosted Blueberry, Hunt’s Ketchup and more. (For a full listing, check out this pdf file.)

Dining On Mercury Is Hazardous To Your Health

For many years there have been advisories against ingesting fish known to have high levels of the toxic substance mercury, particularly for children or women of childbearing age.

Mercury is a heavy metal that can damage many organs, including the heart. It’s bad for the immune system and nervous system.

Bottom line: No getting around it.  Mercury is a toxic substance. At what levels it becomes a real health hazard are open to debate, but as time passes, the levels considered safe continue to get smaller as more evidence is found of it’s negative effects, especially long-term.  

Summarizing The Problem Of Mercury In HFCS

Besides all the high fructose corn syrup health concerns such as obesity and Metabolic Syndrome, it would seem that the possiblity of mercury contaminaton must be added to the list. This occurs because of this chain of circumstances: 

  • Many manufactuers abroad, and even some still in the US, are using the mercury cell method of producing caustic soda.
  • Caustic soda can be contaminated by the mercury during this manufacturing process.
  • Caustic soda is used during the manufacture of high fructose corn syrup.
  • If the caustic soda used to manufacture the HFCS was made by the mercury cell process, then it can contaminate the HFCS with mercury.
  • Foods made with the mercury contaminated HFCS are then also contaminated.

Bottom line: at this point in time there is no way to know if foods containing HFCS are contaminated with mercury. It’s one more reason to avoid these foods as much as possible.

Health Food Made Easy Recommendations

I wish I could say there was a really easy answer. Of course, the best answer is to avoid all foods made with high fructose corn syrup.

Unfortunately, if you are just switching over to healthier foods, when you look at labels in the grocery store you’re going to find that HFCS is in more things than you ever imagined!  It’s in soft drinks, salad dressings, baked goods, flavored milks, relish, soup… the list goes on and on.

The bottom line here is the best health foods are the least processed foods. Foods made with natural ingredients are better for your health than those that are highly processed and/or made with ingredients like HFCS. 1st Class Idea!

Look for alternatives. If the food you’re about to put in your grocery cart has HFCS near the top of the ingredient list, see if you can find a similar food with less HFCS, or better yet, NO high fructose corn syrup.

More and more food companies are switching to other sweeteners as consumers become aware of the dangers associated with HFCS, so there are more choices every day.

Choose wisely. The food you consume to fuel your body can have long term consequences!

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