What’s in the corn syrup? Guest Post by Renee Dufault

posted in: Food | 6

In Something tastes bad…, I questioned IATP’s use of the Env. Health paper Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar. The paper described an experiment that took place in 2005. Renee Dufault, the lead author, described how she obtained samples of high fructose corn syrup and tested them for mercury. When she went back for more samples, her employer (the FDA) asked her to switch to a different project, so no more tests have been conducted. We can only hope that increased funding for the FDA will result from the recent elections and in response to the many recent threats, particularly peanut butter!

Renee has offered to discuss her experiment, her interactions with the FDA, and her reaction to the IATP report. I heartily agree with her call for more testing, but extend the call beyond mercury to include other contaminants, chemical and biological. I also agree that removing mercury from our environment should be top priority, but still feel that mercury exposure from coal-burning power plants is far more dangerous due to quantity than mercury from chlor-alkali plants. However, it certainly couldn’t hurt to switch chlor-alkali plants over to newer (non-mercury) technology!

To answer your question, “Why couldn’t one of them, or one of their grad students, continue the work?” The samples collected under my direction at the FDA were collected by an FDA field investigator directly from the HFCS manufacturers. They were collected carefully with chain-of-custody in tact. My co-authors on the paper did not work at FDA and had no way to obtain the samples. The manufacturers do not want to provide samples unless they are required to provide samples. They were required to provide the samples and cooperate with the FDA field investigator when he was sent out to collect samples. You cannot analyze samples that you are unable to obtain.

I was unable to send another FDA field investigator out to get more samples once the results were in on the preliminary mercury findings. I was instructed not to collect any more samples.

If you read the rebuttal by the CRA, then it should be clear to you that the CRA does not deny that the industry uses or ever used mercury grade chlor-alkali chemicals to manufacture HFCS.

If you have not read the Environmental Health journal article that was peer reviewed, extensively, I would encourage you to do so and take a look at the references that are mostly available on line. It should become clear to you that HFCS is but one food product manufactured with mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals. There are others………and that is most likely one of the reasons why the IATP found mercury in food products in 2008.

I did not see the IATP report until a day or two before it was published. I knew that Dr. Wallinga was doing some follow up but I didn’t know what he was finding. I think that regardless of the flaws of his study, the important thing to know is that there are products in our food supply today that may contain small amounts of mercury. Over time, small amounts of mercury exposure via ingestion may lead to adverse health effects such as genetic variation or chronic disease. We don’t know for sure because there are no long term studies. We cannot say that small doses of mercury (regardless of form) via ingestion over time is safe. We do know, however, that it is not a good idea for pregnant or nursing women to ingest inorganic mercury because it can be passed on to the fetus, or infant in breast milk. And we also know there are sensitive populations that do not metabolize mercury effectively and these populations may easily suffer adverse effects.

And finally, if I’d had the support at FDA to test other food ingredients for mercury (such as citric acid, sodium benzoate….) I would have done it. As it was, I did all I could in the time frame I had to do it in. I did not single out HFCS, I simply started there because it was the most common ingredient found in food products.

I am certain there are many good people that work in the corn industry and I have no doubt that many if not all of these folks were unaware that the use of mercury cell chlor-alkali product in food manufacturing could lead to mercury exposure in pregnant women, infants, and children. It is time now for everyone to work together and address the issue to make sure that this source of mercury exposure is eliminated. There is no blame here. It is what it is.

I then asked: Do you really think the mercury-cell method of chlorine production is the major source of mercury in food? I don’t know much about the subject, but I was under the impression that burning coal released the majority of mercury we find in the environment. I’d love to hear more about it, both as a scientist and for my personal interest.

To answer your question, yes, I do think mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals in food processing is a major source of mercury and that is why I fought so hard to publish the paper. Burning coal does release mercury and this does not help the situation of overall environmental mercury exposure. I believe as humans, our overall exposure to mercury from air, water and food is what is leading to the development of a number of adverse neurological effects. I am not the only scientist who thinks this way. Attached are some papers you will find interesting.

The first two articles that Renee mentioned show a correlation (not causation, of course) between autism and mercury in the environment from coal fired power plants. The last article shows that selenium, bound into selenoproteins, may bind up mercury in the body, preventing mercury from reacting with oxygen to create more dangerous compounds. Strangely, none of these have to do with corn syrup.

ResearchBlogging.orgPalmer, R., Blanchard, S., Stein, Z., Mandell, D., & Miller, C. (2006). Environmental mercury release, special education rates, and autism disorder: an ecological study of Texas Health & Place, 12 (2), 203-209 DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2004.11.005

Palmer, R., Blanchard, S., & Wood, R. (2009). Proximity to point sources of environmental mercury release as a predictor of autism prevalence Health & Place, 15 (1), 18-24 DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.02.001

Chen C, Yu H, Zhao J, Li B, Qu L, Liu S, Zhang P, & Chai Z (2006). The roles of serum selenium and selenoproteins on mercury toxicity in environmental and occupational exposure. Environmental health perspectives, 114 (2), 297-301 PMID: 16451871

Follow Anastasia Bodnar:
Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!