In the News: Mercury Found in Corn Syrup

In the News: Mercury Found in Corn Syrup

A few months ago, Tanya and I wrote about high fructose corn syrup, specifically the Corn Refiners Association’s series of ads aimed at repairing the image of the economical but much-maligned sweetener.

Corn syrup, the “Sweet Surprise” campaign proclaimed, is “made from corn, doesn’t have artificial ingredients, has the same calories as sugar and honey, and like sugar, is fine in moderation.”

As it turns out, there might be another sweet surprise in your corn syrup: mercury.

Mercury, which is a toxin that can have debilitating effects on the nervous system, has been found in almost half of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup, according to two new U.S. studies cited in a USA Today article. In addition, mercury “was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where high-fructose corn syrup is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient.”

“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. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply,” said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Dr. David Wallinga, a co-author of both studies.

One study found that mercury was most common in dairy products, dressings and condiments that contained HFCS.

Why would mercury be used in HFCS? Mercury is used to produce chlorine and caustic soda, the latter of which is then used to make HFCS. Really whets the appetite, doesn’t it?

The Corn Refiners Association says that the study is based on outdated information. “This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years,” said the group’s president in a release.

A key argument of the corn syrup industry is that its sweetener, like the more expensive sugar for which it’s substituted, is fine in moderation. However, HFCS has become ubiquitous; it’s found in processed foods from spaghetti sauce and French dressing to soda and cereal bars.

Find the list of the products that were tested by researchers here.

As a personal choice, regardless of the possible metal content, I avoid anything that contains HFCS. I started making a conscious effort to cut it from my diet more than two years ago. I like eating whole foods and don’t like the taste of most processed foods. (I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth.) I don’t like soda and mostly cook from scratch, so that helps. Do I still consume small amounts of corn syrup? Yes, I’m sure it sneaks in from time to time, but I do my best to avoid it.

If you’re trying to limit or avoid the amount of corn syrup in your diet, here are some pointers:

Read labels. Before I put anything in my shopping cart, I check out the label. I learned long ago that most processed crackers, chips and cakes–all the junk food I don’t need–contains corn syrup. If it contains HFCS, it goes back on the shelf. (This is a great example of how to vote with your fork.)

Here’s a great list of foods that are free of corn syrup. More manufacturers, including many mainstream snack producers, are starting to realize that consumers want an alternative to HFCS, and they’re prominently labeling products when they remove corn syrup.

Eat whole-wheat versions. I’ve noticed that while almost all the white versions of pantry staples (bread, crackers, etc.) contain HFCS, many of the whole wheat ones don’t. (Be sure to check the label of breads, because this is not always the case.) You’ll get more fiber, too!

Be willing to eat some fat. Have you ever read the labels on fat-free dairy or light bread products? They are often significantly longer than the ingredient lists on low-fat or regular versions of the same products. That’s because when you omit fat, which adds moisture and richness, you have to add something else. Usually that means added stabilizers and “wet” ingredients. HFCS is commonly used for both.

Get cooking. Jarred tomato sauces contain HFCS, as do many premade meals. It takes almost no time to chop onions and garlic, sauté them in olive oil and add some canned tomatoes and spices. By the time your water boils, your sauce can be ready, with far less salt and no HFCS. It takes a bit more effort, but the end result is worth it.

Eat real fruit. Skip fruit-flavored products. From the filling in cereal bars and toaster pastries to the fruity bits in your cereal and the flavor in your yogurt, those “fruit flavors” are usually heavy on the corn syrup, light on the fruit. Choose brands that list real fruit as an ingredient.

I gave up flavored yogurts when I gave up corn syrup. Now I buy quarts of plain low-fat yogurt (cheaper than the little cups) and flavor it myself, sometimes with cinnamon and maple syrup or homemade jam, but usually just with some fruit.

Go organic. Organic foods use sugar or other sweeteners rather than corn syrup. If you can afford the organic version, go for it.



~ by sunil khemaney on January 31, 2009.

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