What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a widely used sweetener in the United States. As corn prices plummeted in the 1970s, HFCS was developed to make use of the corn crop in other products. It’s used in an increasingly wide variety of products in the last three decades, from soft drinks to baked goods. It is often one of the largest ingredients in sweet products, frequently taking the first to third place on the food products ingredients labels mandated in the United States.
You might think that such a widely used product with a 30+ year track record would be safe. The HFCS manufacturers in the United States have been running a campaign to convince the public that’s the case. You can take a look at the web-based portion of this campaign at HFCSfacts.com: You’re in for a Sweet Surprise.
HFCS May Be Implicated in the US Obesity and Diabetes Epidemics
The reality is that HFCS has for years been suspected to be involved in the epidemic rise of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Numerous studies have found indications that the increasing use of HFCS may correlate with the increase in obesity and diabetes over a similar period of time. Unsurprisingly, HFCS manufacturers refute this, claiming that there is no credible scientific evidence to support such conclusions.
HFCS is Often Contaminated with Mercury
However, much more alarming news about HFCS was announced in January 2009. Recent testing of samples of HFCS and food products containing it in the United States conducted via two studies found that between 31% and 45% of the samples contained mercury. Mercury is toxic in even small quantities. For years, there have been suspicions that mercury used in vaccines may be related to the rise in autism in the United States. But this mercury contamination issue is much bigger and affects common foods widespread throughout the nation’s food supply. Products tested from big-name manufacturers such as Minute Maid, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain, and Yoplait had detectable levels of mercury.
Even more alarming, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew about this mercury contamination problem since 2005 but suppressed the information. The 2005 study which found 45% of the samples had mercury contamination was conducted by the FDA. But the agency kept it quiet and did nothing to correct the situation even behind the scenes! In March 2008, former FDA scientist Renee Dufault retired. As a researcher on that study, she was later able to go public with the news of the HFCS mercury contamination.
“Mercury is toxic in all its forms,” said IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., and a co-author in both studies. “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 FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply.”
How Does Mercury Get Into HFCS?
HFCS is manufactured using a complex chemical process. Parts of this process involve caustic soda, commonly called sodium hydroxide or lye, and other chemicals produced in industrial chlorine plants. Many of these plants are still using 19th century technology that involves mercury in the production process. Newer technology using membranes and no mercury is readily available, less expensive to operate, and less environmentally damaging. The obstacle to converting to newer technology is the millions of dollars required to replace the mercury cells with membrane systems.
The chlorine plants make more than just chlorine and sodium hydroxide. They also make sodium hypochlorite (bleach) and hydrochloric acid. These are common ingredients in many other household products, including soaps, shampoos, toilet paper, clothes cleaning products, and even toothpaste. So this begs the question of whether far more than our food supply has been contaminated with mercury.
Stopping Mercury Contamination in HFCS
Shutting down the mercury-cell using plants and then converting them to mercury-free technology would mean they could produce chemicals for HFCS production and other household products that would not have mercury contamination. We believe that this would be a wise move. However, more than 90% of these plants in the US have already converted. Only four chlorine plants in the US still use mercury cells. Outside the US, many more chlorine plants are operating using mercury cells. In Europe, for instance, it is estimated that about 60% of their chlorine plants are still using mercury cells. Therefore cleaning up this problem is a global issue, not something that the US can do alone. The US government could, however, make it illegal to use mercury-grade chlorine products in foods made or imported into the United States. This may indirectly force mercury-cell plants to switch to mercury-free technology because their products will be devalued if they are no longer usable by food manufacturers.
Health Impact of Mercury
Mercury causes nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and uninary dysfunctions. In short, it is a major threat to health.
Consumers have been warned in recent years of mercury contamination in certain fish products. Pregnant women and children are warned to avoid eating certain types of fish and to restrict their consumption of other types based upon the likelihood of mercury contamination. Other adults are advised to limit consumption of fish commonly contaminated with mercury, but are believed to not be as sensitive to mercury as children and fetuses. The levels recommended for upper limits are based upon methylmercury, a different form of mercury than founds in HFCS and products made using it. Guidelines for fish consumption can be found in the document Minnesota Smart Fish Guide.
It is unclear how the mercury levels in food containing contaminated HFCS can be compared in health effect to fish and their related methylmercury recommended upper limits. Methylmercury is believed to be more toxic and readily absorbed by the human body than many other forms of mercury. However, based upon the estimated typical rate of consumption of HFCS in foods and beverages of 50 grams per day and the levels of mercury contamination found, it appears that the average person could be consuming several times the upper recommended amounts of mercury in fish products.
In June 2007, the US FDA cautioned against the use of mercury amalgam dental fillings in pregnant women and children. There is significant research which suggests that mercury from the fillings is absorbed into the body and causes long-term buildup of mercury levels. For example, the University of Calgary did a study that found participants who have amalgam fillings had mercury vapor levels in their mouths that were nine times higher than those without such fillings. When those who had the mercury fillings chewed gum for 10 minutes, the mercury vapor levels rose to six times their earlier levels. the American Dental Association still claims that mercury amalgam fillings are safe, however. Their compatriots in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden apparently don’t agree as those countries in early 2008 banned all new mercury amalgam fillings.
Suggestions to Protect Yourself from Mercury in HFCS
So what can you do about protecting yourself from the mercury in our food supply? Here are some simple steps you can do right away:
Read food labels and avoid products that contain high amounts of HFCS, in particular those with HFCS in the first four ingredients listed.
If you eat fish, keep your consumption under the suggested limits for the types of fish you eat. Guidelines for fish consumption can be found in the document Minnesota Smart Fish Guide.
Take dietary supplements such as N-Acetylcysteine (NAC), Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), Selenium (SE), Vitamin C, multivitamins with zinc and copper (which mercury depletes), and Chlorella. These will help reduce the amount of mercury in your body and offset the health effects it creates.
Season your food with cilantro or coriander or take supplements containing them. Cilantro has been found to help chelate mercury in people poisoned by dental amalgam fillings.
In extreme cases of mercury contamination or poisoning, see a doctor immediately and request chelation therapy to help remove the mercury from your body.
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