liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

High-fructose corn syrup is bad, but bad science is worse....

OMiGAWD high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is all CONTAMINATED!!!11!!

See that statement above?

To put it mildly: it's wrong. Well, it's not entirely wrong, but there are a whole lot of devils in the details that making a statement like the one above manages to both overstate the problem while underplaying it at the same time.

Let me put it another way: It's not as bad as all that, while also being a whole lot worse than you think.

And I'm saying this as someone who can't have high fructose corn syrup in any great amount. I found out that I have a bad reaction to it, so as a result my grocery bill has gone up because I can only buy organic or all-natural. I avoid pre-packaged food when I can, or if it's pre-packaged it's something with no preservatives or HFCS in it.

Once I dumped HFCS from my life I stopped having the mid-day sleepies, the occasional (but increasing) bouts of hypoglycemia, and general sluggishness. What's more: Barring the fact that I can't have Girl Scout Cookies any more, I didn't even feel the loss of HFCS from my diet. Okay, my pocketbook did. Me? Not so much. In fact, I felt better.

So, is it possible to have a diet without it? If you're willing to pay for it, yes you can get close to 100%. Trust the girl who knows.

Now, as for the commentary (not a study) published by Environmental Health, an open-access, peer-reviewed on-line journal about environmental and occupational medicine that started all the alarmist yelling...

Much as I hate HFCS, much as I think it's an awful thing to inflict on food stuffs and on people's health, if you actually read the journal's commentary (you can download the full PDF from this page since they don't have the HTML ready yet), the problem is not HFCS.

The problem is the manufacturing process used to make some of the HFCS on the market. That's a pretty big difference.

The problematic process is called mercury cell chlor-alkali. This paper gives you the basics of why it's a problem (warning, PDF!). Here's a better overview about the process.

There's one tiny problem with the mercury cell chlor-alkali process: it generates hazardous waste containing mercury. What's more, it's been known for awhile that there is high risk that anything manufactured using this process will be contaminated with mercury.

Now, these plants produce sodium hypochlorite, caustic soda, and hydrochloric acid, all of which are used in the manufacturing process of HFCS. [As an aside, check out page 5 of the paper when environmental sleuths contact "organic" HFCS manufacturers. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHHA! They even use "organic" in quotes! Good show!]

In short, the paper telling us that HFCS may be contaminated with mercury because the chemicals used to manufacture it may be contaminated with mercury because those chemicals were produced by a mercury cell chlor-alkali plant is a lot like telling us that rain is wet and bears shit in the woods.

Now here's where the news gets worse. Here's a whole bunch of other things that could also be affected by mercury contamination:

  • high-fructose corn syrup (YES! WE KNOW!)
  • citric acid (food preservative)
  • sodium benzoate (food preservative)
  • corn sweeteners (food preservative)
  • corn oil (food preservative)
  • animal feed

Try finding food on your local grocery shelves that contains none of the above.

According to the Environmental Health commentary, roughly 45% of the HFCS samples collected and tested by the FDA contained detectable levels of mercury. The remaining 55% that did not most likely were the end-product of a different manufacturing process called membrane cell chlor-alkali, which has been touted as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way of producing sodium hypochlorite, caustic soda, and hydrochloric acid.

Also, the problem isn't necessary the levels of mercury that was found, because those levels are very, very small. The problem is that this stuff is in everything. As a result, according to Environmental Health, the range of exposure for Americans is 0 to 28.4 micrograms of mercury per day. And that's just HFCS consumption. That does not include mercury contamination from other sources, such as the list of food preservatives above; from seafood; or from livestock that's been fed using fishmeal or contaminated animal feed.

There's also precedent supporting the conclusions of the FDA testing. According to the Environmental Health paper, in 2004 some of the European Union nations a similar study and found that sugary beverages, cereals, bakery products, and sweeteners had detectable concentrations of mercury because the HFCS and preservatives used in the foods were end-products of a process that used chemicals manufactured by mercury cell chlor-alkali plants.

Are you pissed yet? Because you should be, especially since the possibility of mercury contamination via HFCS should come as a surprise to no one.

I think you're starting to get the picture.

The problem is, it's impossible to tell which products have HFCS (or other food preservatives) that contain products from a mercury cell chlor-alkali plant and which contain products from a membrane cell chlor-alkali plant.

The commentary recommends avoiding all foods that contain HFCS as its first or second ingredient, just to be on the safe side, because those are the foods that are most likely to have detectable levels of mercury in them if the HFCS is an end product of a mercury cell chlor-alkali plant.

Okay, I don't know how much the above information has cleared up. But I figured it was more important that everyone get the full skinny.

So, I'll just sum up here: shouting about HFCS being contaminated with mercury really doesn't capture just how potentially big this problem is, while managing to sound alarmist at the same time.

Get all the facts, then start shouting from the rooftops.

ETA: m_mcgregor and ryf make some good points about the commentary in this thread, noting that the information was taken from a pre-study to determine if a full-scale study is worth undertaking. That answer is yes, but it doesn't mean that we're all going to die of mercury poisoning tomorrow.

I, however, vehemently disagree with them on their points about HFCS. While I do agree that HFCS itself is not inherently bad, I think the main issue is that amount we unknowingly consume because we don't realize just how much of it is in our food.

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