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Bad to begin with, HFCS now found to contain mercury.

January 28th, 2009

HFCS is in a dizzying array of products.

Not-so-little Shop of Horrors: HFCS is in a dizzying array of products.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is already the subject of controversy as a calorie-dense and nearly ubiquitous sweetening ingredient found in a disturbingly wide range of foods and drinks.  Most health-conscious consumers already read labels and strenuously avoid HFCS, but mainstream America still consumes enough to make the average annual consumption about 40 lbs per year.  HFCS is in everything, foods, drinks, condiments, alcoholic mixers, candy and even many medications.

Most of the controversy centers around evidence of harmful health effects of consuming so many sugar calories in general and so much HFCS in particular.  This evidence and the de-facto emergence of an anti-HFCS movement have prompted the agribusiness interests that produce HFCS  to developing advertising campaigns to improve its image.  HFCS has been implicated as a contributing factor to the explosion in diabetes and obesity, especially among younger people.  There are significant differences between high-fructose corn syrup and other types of sugar; differences in how they ‘behave’ as sweetening ingredients in foods and drinks, differences in how they are metabolized by the body, differences in cost.   Manufacturer’s have their reasons for wanting to continue to use cheap HFCS instead of more expensive, less-controversial options. Consumers have their reasons for avoiding it.

Findings recently published in Environmental Health show that many HFCS-containing foods had detectable limits of mercury.  The significance is not so much that the mercury levels were sky high, but that HFCS – in all its 40-lbs-a-year glory – is a newly identified source of mercury.

Mercury is an recognized neurotoxin of great concern to health researchers. Mercury bio-accumulates in human tissue and is very difficult for the body to remove. So although standards have been set for acceptable limits of mercury in foods, beverages, medicines and other products, there’s really no ‘safe’ level per se.  Unfortunately mercury is everywhere in the environment and already contaminates much of the food we consume, since it bio-accumulates in most of the plants and animals we eat just as it does in our bodies.  Initiatives to reduce mercury exposure have led to mercury-free alternatives in dentistry and pharmacology as well as other sources like tuna, shark and swordfish.

In the meantime, it’s always wise to limit exposure to mercury any way you can. While the ‘debate’ about HFCS (and other sugary sweeteners) will probably go on for some time,  this new evidence of a  HFCS-mercury relationship seems certain to launch a new wave of HFCS defectors. Fortunately for them, they’ll find that in the process of avoiding HFCS, they’ll end up substituting many more natural foods and drinks for mass-market HFCS-laden products.

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