Junkfood Science: Mercury in HFCS retake

January 30, 2009

Mercury in HFCS retake

What a week. The heightening panic-stricken rhetoric and scary claims in the media have become so-over-the-top, they’ve been truly frightening people, especially young women afraid for their children. That shouldn't be.

It is so important for people to get this and to understand enough basic science and chemistry to protect themselves from living in constant fear of everything! Next week, it will be something else said to be detected in our foods or bodies that will be used to try and scare us. So, it’s worth taking a moment to clarify some of the most common myths that have proliferated on the internet about this week’s scare: mercury in HFCS.

Be afraid, very afraid

A multitude of interests, it seems, appear to be ready to capitalize on another food scare. Some lawyers, who must see potentially lucrative class action lawsuits in the wings, have come out with some of the most irresponsible and factually inaccurate scares. A publication for San Francisco product liability attorneys, for example, even headlined with exclamation points: “Consumer alert: Mercury present in high fructose corn syrup!” and proceeded to call mercury a “brain toxin” and that it had been found in “high levels” in popular foods and claimed that the FDA had been unresponsive to concerns about “dangerous mercury levels found in high fructose corn syrup.” To add fear of the unknown, it claimed “the source of mercury remains a mystery to researchers and industry experts.” Because of the purportedly high amounts found, they said “it is important [consumers] are aware of the presence of mercury” and went on to claim that no level of mercury exposure is safe, especially for unborn babies and children.

Other bloggers have called mercury a poison and “witch's chemist's brew of industrial solvents and genetically engineered enzymes.” Conspiracy theories have been rampant, with claims that mercury is put into foods by evil food companies and the FDA has been part of “another potential cover-up.”

There is no conspiracy, no mystery, no high levels

Mercury (Hg) is a naturally-occurring element on the earth, and is found naturally in everything that lives and grows on the planet: air, water, soil, foods and us. As the World Health Organization’s latest guidance report produced in Geneva, Switzerland last summer by its Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases and the esperts at the UN’s Inter-Organisation Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals, explained: “All humans are exposed to some low levels of mercury… as a result of normal daily activities.”

Virtually everyone, if tested, would find trace amounts in their own tissues, the chemists reiterated, but these low exposures are not anything to be afraid of and don’t cause health risks. We are not all mercury toxic! Detectible levels in parts per million or parts per billion do not equal risk. It is also not at all surprising to find mercury in foods and food ingredients. It’s always been there. Mercury exposure isn’t a mystery or a surprise to scientists.

Natural processes, such as forest fires and volcanoes, release the greatest amounts of mercury into the earth’s atmosphere, as it is a natural product of combustion. Mother Nature gives us the most mercury in our environment, up to 6,000 tons every year. Human activities produce a small fraction of that, with emission dropping for decades in developed countries. Perhaps that’s why 550-year old Alaskan mummies were found to have mercury levels in their hair many times higher than American people today, as ancient peoples lived in cramped, poorly ventilated places warmed by wood-burning fires.

Elemental mercury is used around the world in many artisanal processes and to make lots of products because of its unique properties, explained the WHO chemical experts. “For example, it is the only metal that exists in liquid form at room temperature,” they said. But in this form, as was explained by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, virtually none is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract or through the skin.

It is false that “mercury is toxic in all its forms” or that any exposure at all is dangerous. Among the scares this week has been a lack of understanding that there are different forms of mercury and each has different effects on the human body. Whether something is harmless or potentially harmful depends on the type of mercury, the dose, the route of exposure (inhaled, eaten or skin contact) and the duration of exposure, as the WHO report explains.

As we reviewed when Jeremy Piven was said to have mercury poisoning from eating sushi, the only cases in the scientific literature of people being poisoned by mercury from eating fish or any food were from fish tainted after an industrial chemical accident in Minamata Bay, Japan in the 1950s, which resulted in fish with methylmercury levels 40 to 1,000 times higher than the fish Americans eat, and that most people around the world eat. And methylmercury is the organic form of mercury and absorbed at least ten times more than the inorganic forms, as in elemental mercury.

Read that again: except for industrial chemical accidents, so rare they make world history, there are no known cases of people (even unborn babies, children or pregnant women) being harmed from mercury or methylmercury in their food. This was covered here.

It is also false that any exposure at all is dangerous or that it is even possible to live on the planet and live in a mercury-free environment.

There will always be people who will try to take advantage of others by trying to make them believe that just because some scary-sounding substance has been found in detectible amounts, that it means danger. It’s so important for consumers to understand that the dose makes the medicine or the poison, with everything. Everything is toxic at high enough doses, but detected does not equal harm. It’s also helpful to understand how safety margins are arrived at for any chemical or substance. When we hear a scary claim purporting to have found “high” levels above “safe limits” in a food or our bodies, that does not mean danger. This was covered in Hair-raising fears.

The biggest give-away that this week’s mercury in HFCS story was nothing but a scare story was that it tried to use mercury to frighten us about an ingredient (and foods made from it) that some want us to believe are bad and supposedly making everyone fat and diseased. This was an egregious example of using fear to advance political ideologies about food production and sales — not good science, nutrition or medical information.

Consumers were not given the full story and weren’t able to make informed choices.

Why was HFCS chosen? Notice how there was no attempt to put the levels of mercury found in HFCS and HFCS-containing foods into context? They could have chosen countless other foods to report mercury levels on — but that information would have made it instantly apparent to consumers that they were being conned.

Lets look at one example. Scientists with Health Canada and its Bureau of Chemical Safety, Food Research Division in Ottawa evaluated the total mercury in foods eaten by Canadians. In order to make scientifically-based risk assessments, they wrote, it is important to have sound facts and they used the most reliable techniques to estimate the total mercury in people’s diets. They measured 259 different total diet food composites, foods as purchased and eaten by consumers, using the most advanced methods, and duplicating each sample’s analysis. To determine the potential daily total amount of mercury people consumed, they conducted in-depth 24-hour diet consumption surveys. They found that the total amount of mercury among Canadians of all ages and genders were well below safety guidelines [Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intakes, and Canadian guidelines] for both mercury and methylmercury.

The greatest fears in the media this week came from a report by the environmental group, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which tested 55 commercial foods containing HFCS and reported detecting mercury in 17 samples, at levels ranging from 0.02 parts per billion to 0.1 ppb. The average amounts of mercury found in a wide range of other foods by Health Canada can help us put these numbers into context.

The mercury detected in foods eaten in Ottawa (all numbers are also in ppb):

eggs 1.50

lamb 2.30

cottage cheese 0.97

cheddar cheese 1.02

beef steak 1.80

chicken and turkey 1.80

bran cereal 1.40

donuts <0.14

wholewheat bread 0.18

rice 1.80

beans 0.22

broccoli 0.67

carrots 0.47

celery 0.50

mushrooms 5.10

tomatoes 0.28

cherries 0.26

plums 0.30

milk 0.25

fish 24-69

corn 0.21

raisins 0.68

honey 0.16

beer <0.05

baby cereal 0.35

pizza 0.15

We could go on, but you get the idea. That's why, attempts to scare you over detecting mercury in HFCS made no biological sense. Mercury is in everything — and in nearly every food in greater amounts than reported in HFCS-foods — but the dose makes the poison. None of these foods are dangerous to eat as part of our diets, either. [Note: Be careful with some attempts to make numbers appear bigger by reporting in parts per trillion. That's the equivalent of one second in about 32 years.] As I had concluded earlier this week: Beliefs that we can only be safe by removing from our diets every trace of any substance that has ever been shown to be toxic, means not eating or drinking anything at all.

Science is your friend and understanding science may be the best thing you can do for your health and well being. Hopefully, this will help you arm yourself from being scared by every spooky-sounding thing “detected” in your food.

© 2009 Sandy Szwarc

Edited for calculations 2/5/09.

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