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Mercury in High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

Researchers Say 17 Products Tested Had Some Mercury; Industry Group Says Syrup Is Safe
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 27, 2009 -- Some foods and drinks rich in high-fructose corn syrup may contain detectable levels of mercury, a new report shows.

The report, published on the web site of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), shows detectable levels of mercury in 17 out of 55 tested products rich in high-fructose corn syrup.

But the researchers aren't telling people to avoid those products or other items containing high-fructose corn syrup, and they aren't sure what form of mercury those products contained.

The Corn Refiners Association stands by high-fructose corn syrup, calling it "safe."

Mercury and High-Fructose Corn Syrup

The new report comes from researchers including David Wallinga, MD, director of the IATP's food and health program. They bought 55 products that list high-fructose corn syrup first or second on their list of ingredients, which means high-fructose corn syrup was a leading ingredient in those products.

Wallinga's team sent samples of those products to a commercial lab, which checked the levels of total mercury in each sample.

"Overall, we found detectable mercury in 17 of 55 samples, or around 31%," write Wallinga and colleagues.

Here is the list of those products:

  • Quaker Oatmeal to Go bars
  • Jack Daniel's Barbecue Sauce
  • Hershey's Chocolate Syrup
  • Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce
  • Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars
  • Manwich Gold Sloppy Joe
  • Market Pantry Grape Jelly
  • Smucker's Strawberry Jelly
  • Pop-Tarts Frosted Blueberry
  • Hunt's Tomato Ketchup
  • Wish-Bone Western Sweet & Smooth Dressing
  • Coca-Cola Classic: no mercury found on a second test
  • Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt
  • Minute Maid Berry Punch
  • Yoo-hoo Chocolate Drink
  • Nesquik Chocolate Milk
  • Kemps Fat Free Chocolate Milk

Wallinga and colleagues caution that their list was "just a snapshot in time; we only tested one sample of each product. That clearly is not sufficient grounds to give definitive advice to consumers."

Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. A form of mercury called methylmercury is particularly risky to a baby's developing brain and nervous system, according to background information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Wallinga points out that the lab only tested for total mercury levels, not methylmercury or other types of mercury. He also notes that the EPA has a "reference dose," or upper limit, for methylmercury intake but not for other forms of mercury.

 

Where Did the Mercury Come From?

Wallinga's report doesn't prove that the mercury in the tested products came from high-fructose corn syrup, but "I'm hard pressed to say where else it would come from," Wallinga tells WebMD.

Wallinga explains that mercury can be used to make caustic soda, which is one of the products used to make high-fructose corn syrup. That's outdated technology; mercury isn't needed to make caustic soda, notes Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, in a statement emailed to WebMD.

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