HFCS and Mercury, Food Processing Mysteries and Not Worrying About It

Just read an article discussing a recent study that found an association between mercury and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS, which is chemically just a smidge different than your run-of-the-mill table sugar, has been much-maligned in recent days being characterized as the reason Americans have such poor health. To combat this image, the corn industry has been raining down propaganda in the form of asinine commercials that browbeat apparently clueless HFCS-naysaying nincompoops by reinforcing that HFCS, like regular sugar, is natural (it’s made from corn!) and “fine in moderation” (Examples here and here). This HFCS propaganda has humorously spawned a number of youtube spoofs (See here, here and here). God bless the internet.

I won’t delve into this debate other than to say that sugar, HFCS, pure glucose, pure fructose or just sucrose, all have similar, blood-sugar and insulin-spiking effects, which may have drug-like consequences for the human body, and only offer raw energy (But no other nutrients). And one more thought: the appeal that “everything is okay in moderation” is little more than a meaningless justification for behavior, which due to its vague effectiveness at silencing criticism, actually leaves an otherwise meaningful debate worse off than before the “appeal to moderation” is made.

Back to the article. Here’s the gist of the study:

In the first study, researchers found detectable levels of mercury in nine of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. The study was published in current issue of Environmental Health.

In the second study, the agriculture group found that nearly one in three of 55 brand-name foods contained mercury. The chemical was most common in HFCS-containing dairy products, dressings and condiments.

The use of mercury-contaminated caustic soda in the production of HFCS is common. The contamination occurs when mercury cells are used to produce caustic soda.

The last two sentences are worth reading twice.

Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide) is a chemical base (OH) used to effect various chemical reactions (often used in paper/textile industries). I don’t know the exact use of caustic to create HFCS from corn, but suffice to say that whatever magic is used requires a chemical base as an intermediate. Caustic soda is most commonly formed as a by-product of chlorine extraction from brine (salt water). There are various ways to separate the Chlorine (Cl) from brine, which leaves behind the NaOH, but one process of chlorine/caustic production involves using mercury cells (Notably, the word on the street is that mercury cell chlorine/caustic production technology is slowly being phased out). Apparently, some of this mercury is leaking into the HFCS, and thereby leaking into any foods that contain HFCS. Yikes.

However, all of the above is more than you need to know because the big takeaway is fairly elementary: HFCS is produced by man. It aint natural (appeal to nature)! HFCS has to be created via any number of chemical processes, one of which requires caustic soda, a chemical that may be contaminated with mercury, which may pass on to the HFCS. It’s complicated.

Cane and beet sugar require processing, too, though the processing seems less complicated and doesn’t require caustic soda (Though it does require chemical enzymes!).

So what does this mean and what should we do about it? Is HFCS the evil sweetener health-advocates love to hate? It certainly gets an extra strike against it for the mercury. Is cane/beet sugar better? Probably. Really, these questions are detractors from the bigger reality, which is twofold. The first is obvious: sugar is unhealthy (no matter the specific form). The second is that the production methods used to create processed foods can introduce harmful mystery ingredients. In short, processed foods are not natural.

Yes, the “natural” criticism is a tautology and a non sequitur. Processed foods aren’t inherently unhealthy and can often times be quite good for you (Coconut oil, red wine, extra virgin olive oil, vitamins). It would be silly to construct a diet that insists on totally abstaining from processed foods. When you get right down to it, even raw honey is processed by bees. Nutrition is much too complex for bright-line rules.

But that doesn’t stop us from creating them. As a rule-of-thumb, the farther a food gets from a virgin state, the more exposure it has to being modified in ways we don’t understand and can’t expect to know. Rather than spend countless hours getting comfortable with each and every processed food item and ingredient (And the processing these ingredients underwent ad infinitum), I can simply follow food preferences that minimize my exposure to the unknown.

In theory, by deferring to “natural” foods over produced foods, I should get so many nutrients and health-benefits from consuming nutrient-dense meats, fruits and vegetables that my body will be keyed to overcome whatever other junk manages to sneak into my diet (Chocolate, coffee, ice cream — little vices).

In practice, to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so, I already avoid HFCS and sugar. I do this by enjoying more natural, tasty and self-prepared meals over processed alternatives. Should I worry about the mercury that sneaks into the store-bought ice cream via the ubiquitous additive, high fructose corn syrup? Naah. If you maximize your health in simple ways, you get the by-product of minimizing the impact of the unknown — all without worrying about the nitty gritty details! So the big takeaway of this study? Stop worrying about HFCS and start preferring better, less processed foods! The rest will take care of itself.

Update 2:24 PM 1/28/09: Not surprisingly, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has released a statement to refute the above-cited study on mercury in HFCS. Here’s their side and a snippet:

?This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance. Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years. These mercury-free re-agents perform important functions, including adjusting pH balances,? stated Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association. ?For more than 150 years, corn wet millers have been perfecting the process of refining corn to make safe ingredients for the American food supply.?

The CRA is their own worst enemy here. First off, “outdated information of dubious significance” is a pretty strong statement that is no way backed up by the rest of their press release. The study cited above used samples from 2005, which is recent enough for me to consider relevant.

I also found it odd to read how the CRA speaks for all corn refiners in saying “[o]ur industry has used mercury-free versions.” How do they know that? Do they strictly enforce that all corn refiners only buy caustic soda, a globally-produced commodity chemical, from non-mercury-cell producers? We aren’t told. What we are told is that the FDA has approved HFCS and that it uses re-agents for refining and refining has been going on for 150 years. Breath a sigh of relief!

I updated this post to include the CRA response to point out that there are powers that are out actively talking their books — that includes both the HFCS-cheerleaders and the anti-HFCS activists. Thankfully, us enlightened folk can rise above their lunacy.

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