Filed Under: Food Scares Snacks

HFCS Mercury Follies (Or,

Pop quiz time! Which "Devil’s candy" has been lambasted for being too affordable, making children fat, and turning male frogs into hermaphrodites? (Hint: It was famously dubbed "the crack of sweeteners" by a Florida state senator in 2006.) If you guessed high-fructose corn syrup, give yourself ten points. Bonus question: If critics of HFCS haven’t been able to ban it by painting it as evil, unhealthy, or un-"green," what’s left? Nothing.

HFCS hysteria has made its glorious return thanks to a new report from the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration calls HFCS "natural" and hyper-sour food maven Marion Nestle calls it "basically no different than table sugar," IATP managed to spark a new sweetener scare this week. How? 

We sent several dozen products [containing HFCS] to a commercial laboratory, using the latest in mercury detection technology. And guess what? We found mercury.

Jackpot! Mercury — the biggest skull-and-crossbones of them all. And America’s sweetener supply is allegedly "contaminated" with it. But before you start ransacking your kitchens in a panic, consider the fact that IATP was previously best known for something called "Peace Coffee."

First, the obvious: Americans have been consuming HFCS since 1985. Ever heard of a cola-induced case of mercury poisoning? Neither have we. Because even according to IATP’s own questionable data, you would have to drink 181,797 cans of Coke to be exposed to the same amount of elemental mercury in a single compact fluorescent light bulb.

That’s roughly four milligrams of mercury, or about the size of the period at the end of this sentence, in over 180,000 cans of soda.

Of course, this is assuming that IATP’s data is sound. But the group's researchers didn’t run mercury tests on any HFCS-free grocery products. So did the tiny traces of mercury they found come from somewhere other than corn syrup? Who knows?

More than two-thirds of IATP's samples — 38 out of 55 — had no detectable mercury at all, and the other 17 were at or just slightly above the tiniest amount a modern laboratory can detect. Does that mean that those 17 contain enough mercury to cause any harm?

Certainly not. The mercury levels IATP reported were measured in parts per trillion. Not parts per million, or even parts per billion. Even when measured in parts per billion, it’s actually not hard to find mercury in just about anything. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), even drinking water is "a minor source of exposure to [elemental] mercury." So is the air we breathe.

We did the math. One liter of clean and safe drinking water contains more mercury than any of the grocery products IATP tested. The WHO and the Environmental Protection Agency agree that water containing 0.5 parts per billion (or 500 parts per trillion) of mercury is perfectly safe. The highest level IATP found was .35 parts per billion, or 350 parts per trillion.

Maybe this is just a desperate ploy from IATP to get us all to drink more "Peace Coffee." It's definitely not competent science.

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