Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Stupidity

Remember the good old days when the only worries linked to high fructose corn syrup were obesity and diabetes? Now we get reports like this in Mother Jones. Looks like we might be able to add impaired neurological development and reduced cognitive thinking to the list. A recent study suggests that our beloved national treasure, high fructose corn syrup, may indeed be contaminated with mercury. Sweet.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is widely found in processed foods--sweetened beverages, breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments to name but a few. Scientists estimate that 1 out of every 10 calories Americans eat comes from HFCS. Given such widespread exposure, one would think that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might be interested in digging a little deeper to see whether or not there really is cause for concern.

Contamination happens something like this: The process of separating corn starch from the kernel requires the use of lye and some chemical companies manufacture lye using mercury. Health effects vary depending on the type of mercury we are exposed to. And as one might guess, those most at risk for development of negative health outcomes when exposed are children and fetuses. Health effects include impaired cognitive thinking, memory, attention and language difficulties. Exposure also affects the growing brain and nervous system of the developing fetus. A major limitation is that we still do not know which type of mercury contaminated the HFCS. What could really hurt some feelings is the fact the FDA has known about this possible contamination since at least 2005 and has refused to pursue any additional research.

It is important to remember that the FDA:

"...is the federal agency responsible for ensuring that foods are safe, wholesome and sanitary..."
and that
"FDA also ensures that these products are honestly, accurately and informatively represented to the public."
(quoted from the FDA's website)

Many argue that the FDA fails on both counts and some suggest that the agency is more invested in guarding the profits of major corporate interests than protecting the health of Americans. On the other hand, perhaps the FDA, like other regulatory agencies in the US, is severely underfunded. Or better yet, maybe they are just plain lazy.

There is a bit of good news. Approximately 90% of US manufacturers employ mercury-free production techniques. Unfortunately, 4 US plants and 60% of European production still rely on mercury cell technology and a fair number of our processed foods happen to be imported.

Obvious next steps should be to 1) determine which form(s) of mercury can be detected in HFCS and 2) compare the mercury levels in found in HFCS to background mercury levels reported in other foods. Given that previous estimates of mercury consumption have never before included HFCS as a possible source of exposure, one would hope that the pursuit of a well-informed risk assessment would be on top of somebody's list. You can be sure, though, that certain industries want no part of it.

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