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Mercury in High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

Researchers Say 17 Products Tested Had Some Mercury; Industry Group Says Syrup Is Safe

Where Did the Mercury Come From? continued...

Erickson didn't comment specifically on Wallinga's study. Instead, her statement focuses on a new study published online in Environmental Health, which shows mercury in some samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup tested in 2005.

"This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance," Erickson states. "Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years."

Wallinga agrees about the technological shift away from mercury. "If you just look within the confines of the U.S., yes, about 90% of production now is not using mercury," says Wallinga. "The problem is that we don't actually know where our companies are buying their high-fructose corn syrup from ... it's a global industry."

"For me, the take-home message is really that this is a totally avoidable, unnecessary exposure to mercury," says Wallinga. "We've got a safer, more efficient technology for making these chemicals that are part of the ingredients used to manufacture high-fructose corn syrup."

Mercury's Form Unknown

Like Wallinga's report, the study published in Environmental Health doesn't specify the form of mercury present in the high-fructose corn syrup.

"I would imagine that a good majority of the mercury that is detected would have been in the form of elemental mercury," not methylmercury, toxicologist Carl Winter, PhD, tells WebMD. Winter, who directs the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, says that methylmercury is "by far the most toxic form of mercury" because methylmercury is better absorbed by the body than other forms of mercury.

"We have a principle in toxicology, which is the dose makes the poison," says Winter. "It's the amount of a chemical, not its presence or absence, that determines the potential for harm, and frankly, I don't see based on their findings that they've made much of a case that this is something that consumers need to worry about."

Besides his academic work, Winter is a volunteer spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit scientific society that includes food science and technology professionals in industry, academia, and government. Winter says his work has never been funded by food or chemical industries.

Companies Respond

WebMD contacted the makers of all 17 products that tested positive for mercury in Wallinga's report.

ConAgra Foods, which makes Manwich Bold Sloppy Joe and Hunt's Tomato Ketchup, is "absolutely confident in the safety of our products," ConAgra Foods spokeswoman Stephanie Childs tells WebMD.

Childs notes that "the levels of mercury reported in our ketchup are well below the EPA's safe exposure level. In fact, we estimate that you'd have to eat more than 100 pounds of ketchup per day to even come anywhere near the EPA's safe exposure level in terms of mercury.

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