PR debacle for HFCS: Care for some mercury with your oatmeal?

That much-debated sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, is going to need more than a pricey PR campaign to fix this one.

After one set of scientists found mercury — yes, everyone’s favorite brain-impairing element — in almost half of commercial HFCS, another bunch of scientists decided to get specific and tested 55 common consumer products that use HFCS. And guess what? Almost a third of them contain mercury.

How did the heavy metal get in there? In making HFCS — that “natural” sweetener, as the Corn Refiners Associaton likes to call it — caustic soda is one ingredient used to separate corn starch from the corn kernel. Apparently most caustic soda for years has been produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants, where it can be contaminated with mercury that it passes on to the HFCS, and then to consumers.

David Wallinga, M.D., and his co-authors of “Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup,” are naming brand names in their report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. At the top of the list: Quaker Oatmeal to Go, Jack Daniel’s Barbecue Sauce from Heinz, Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, Kraft Original Barbecue Sauce, and Nutri-Grain Strawberry Cereal Bars. Oy!

And, although soft drinks, the über-users of HFCS, surprisingly weren’t the worst offenders, I’m betting Coca-Cola Classic (coming in at 12th) gets consumed in far higher dietary quantities than Oatmeal to Go.

That’s all bad enough, especially considering no level of mercury is considered safe and that it’s especially toxic to growing brains — that is, the brains of the people consuming the highest levels of HFCS (children) and the brains of babies in utero. (See the figures in the report.) Worse: People at the FDA and USDA knew about the presence of mercury in HFCS and did nothing about it.

According to a press release from the IATP, Renee Dufault, the lead author in the first study (“Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar,” published today in Environmental Health [PDF; abstract here]), was working at the FDA when the commercial HFCS was tested. The IATF release reports, “While the FDA had evidence that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury four years ago, the agency did not inform consumers, help change industry practice or conduct additional testing.”

I suppose we’ve already known the FDA is sweet on HFCS (and food from cloned cattle) and can’t find a pathogen when it’s actually looking for it. But if you can’t trust Mr. Quaker, whom can you trust?

Previous Ethicurean posts on HFCS:

27 Responsesto “PR debacle for HFCS: Care for some mercury with your oatmeal?”

  1. Disturbing – yet another reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup!  Even though there is “no lower limit” on safe mercury exposure, the reported numbers are a lot less than those found in fish, even “safe” fish.  About 1000 times less, in fact, according to the NRDC website.  Even so, the addition of mercury to the diet through systematic subsidization of the corn industry is disturbing, to say the least.

  2. Ess says:

    Wow! I feel so validated for taking a stand regarding the sweetener, getting HFCS out of our diet 3 years ago, and telling others to follow my lead! Course if I’d been consuming the brain-addling contaminate all this time maybe I wouldn’t know any better (is that their plan for Americans?).
    Wonder what Dave Martosko is up to these days… isn’t he the Safe Mercury spokesperson who assures everyone there is no upper limit on the metal whether from tuna or other causes? What would we do without the Center for Consumer Fraud, er… Freedom to help us support the industry.
    Thanks for letting us know about this.

  3. I wonder what the new Secretary of Agriculture, a.k.a. corn’s biggest cheerleader, will have to say about this? I’m sure they’ll all jump on the bandwagon of “let’s make high fructose corn syrup safe” because no way in hell anyone in government is going to say an intoward word against the stuff.
    The fact is that consumers are going to, eventually, have to wake up and start realizing that the whole point of the consumer products industry is to convince you to pay a lot to trust them while they make your food ever cheaper. What incentive does anyone have to produce nourishing, healthful products? None, they’d rather spend their dollar putting government into their pockets. At the very least we need to start examining the ingredients in our food. But our country’s inability to be shocked continues to amaze me. We all still trust completely manufactured people, like the Quaker Oats guy, and Betty Crocker.

  4. Andrew Cook says:

    In addition to just hating hfcs (seriously, sugar just tastes better), I know how nasty the stuff is to make and how lousy corn is on soil.
    This just turns my stomach even more- just as my fervor against the stuff slacked enough to start accepting its pervasiveness…
    I knew the stuff was mind rotting, but damn.
    I never quite trusted the Quaker Oats man…
    I buy steel/rough cut oatmeal and use honey and brown sugar to sweeten.
    Eventually, and probably well too late despite advances in technology and practical knowledge, that the best way to feed people is to shorten the distance from where it starts and where it ends up…again and again.
    If you can’t control what gets in your food, what control do you have over what gets in your body?
    I appreciate the comments here, and I do think that local food movements, necessity and safety issues will- or at least damn well should- pressure Americans to reconsider their “food web.”
    We’ve lost working knowledge of foodways and various practices that kept us fed and nutritionally fit- or at least had the potential to do so within our realms of control (our kitchens, our homes).

  5. mom101 says:

    Thank you so very much for all the valuable info. I just posted about it. And also, why I’m going to start feeding my kids air. (But no doubt you have a great post somewhere about why air is now totally unsafe to eat too.)

  6. Expat Chef says:

    The levels are lower, but most people eat HFCS multiple times a day with processed food. So they would be getting multiple doses of the low level versus an occasional exposure from fish. A single low-level dose would not be an issue, but HFCS is prevalent, and thus, a risk. Thanks for this post, I will be linking to it.

  7. Thank you for this.   I just “tweeted” it.  I have been trying to stay away from this junk for a while now, but this just renews my vigor.  I was getting lax.

  8. FoodBubbles says:

    I have to agree with my go-to guru for food safety, Marion Nestle, when cautions that more tests are needed.  The little bit of data from these first studies do not warrant the hysteria evident in your article.  First of all, she says, “…these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.”  Adding, “My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.” As it stands right now, the science does not warrant a distrust for Mr. Quaker.  Plus, the people that get rallied by this fear-mongering article are probably already avoiding HFCS like it harbors the plague.  Level-headed, science-backed argumentation wins over more conversts than pure paranoia.   Also, you can find Marion Nestle’s whole comment at

  9. E. Wong says:

    Unfortunately, this story is typical hippie fear-mongering.  The primary study cited in this article spends many pages repeating “high fructose corns syrup” and “mercury,” knowing that these words are enough to strike terror into the hearts of the kind of people who read this stuff.  However, toxicology is about three things: 1) dosage; 2) dosage; and 3) dosage.  The article calculates exposure to mercury through HFCS as 28 micrograms per day, while failing utterly to tell whether this represents elemental mercury or organic mercury.  This distinction is important – akin to the different between shooting a bullet and tossing it.  Methylmercury, or, God forbid, dimethly mercury, is exceedingly bioavailable — a couple of drops of dimethyl mercury on your skin will kill you.  Elemental mercury, on hand, is absorbed by the GI tract at an efficiency of only 0.01%. 

    Furthermore – the mercury in HFCS is overwhelmingly likely to be entirely of the elemental form, because elemental mercury is used to make the caustic soda, whereas  methylmercury is only formed by the action of anarobic microorganisms on elemental mercury, primarily in aquatic environments like the ocean.  Thus, even if a person were to consume massive amounts of HFCS and small amounts of fish, the bioavailable mercury from the fish would still be orders of magnitude greater than exposure from the corn syrup.  To top it all off, the data indicate that eating fish is, on the whole, healthy. 

    Bottom line: you can’t flip out just because someone says “mercury.”  Unless you believe that eating moderate amounts of fish is about as dangerous as chugging Drain-O (and it’s not – just look at the Japanese), you cannot reasonably get worked up about the minute amounts of un-absorbable mercury in corn syrup.  The data simply do not allow for that kind of reaction.

  10. Tom Philpott says:

    I think FoodBubbles and by extension Marion Nestle are missing a key point here. Yes, more testing is needed; that is precisely Renee Dufault’s point. She conducted a study in 2005 while at FDA, and found mercury in HFCS samples. She performed the test because she was investigating the “missing mercury” story — mercury-based chlorine plants couldn’t account for all the mercury they use. She hypothesized that some of it might be leaving in the form of “mercury grade” caustic soda — and heading to HFCS refineries. So she tested HFCS and found it positive for mercury in 9 samples out of 20. And the FDA did … nothing with this information. She tried to duplicate her tests upon retiring in 2008 — but the HFCS industry wouldn’t give her samples. Only government agencies like FDA can force the industry to release samples. So the real question is, why did the FDA not proceed with more testing? I think a bit of outrage is called for here. The real anti-science philistines, it seems to me, are in the FDA — not citizens demanding answers.

  11. West Looper says:

    This study is a bit of a rush to judgement and jumps to conclusion.  Because ONE SAMPLE has low levels of mercury does not mean all the samples do, and does not mean that the mercury comes from HFCS.  How did snacks, dairy products, and other foods without HFCS compare?  As someone else pointed out, there are many factors that can contribute, including the water used in the manufacturing of the product, other ingredients, and air/packaging that it is exposed to.  I’m not sure HFCS is the culprit or the main culprit.  I bet there are plenty of Kashi products (no HFCS and also made by kelloggs) that would also have low levels of mercury. 

  12. Beth says:

    Thanks for covering this! I work on Oceana’s Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination, which has been working since 2005 to get the chlor-alkali industry, which produces the chemicals purported to contaminate HFCS, to go mercury-free. Since then, 5 of the 9 plants that were using outdated technology at that time have announced plans to voluntarily stop using mercury. To email the companies that own the remaining four plants and ask them to switch to modern technology, go to

    In the last couple of sessions of Congress, we have worked with then-Senator Obama to introduce legislation that would ban mercury in chlor-alkali production by 2012. We will be working to make sure the legislation passes this year!

  13. I work with the Corn Refiners Association and want to point out a serious inaccuracy in the study that came out in Environmental Health that reports high fructose corn syrup contains mercury. The study appears to be based on outdated information since the corn industry has used mercury-free versions of the two re-agents mentioned in the study for several years. It’s important that Americans know that high fructose corn syrup is safe and high fructose corn syrup meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for the use of the term “natural.”  Here’s a link to the statement by the Corn Refiners Association on the topic –

  14. Janet says:

    I can’t help but notice that the Corn Refiner’s Assn. statement doesn’t say that corn refiners do NOT use mercury-free versions of the agents involved. Meanwhile, although these two studies don’t convict the industry and the FDA of anything, they certainly indict. As Tom Philpott in particular suggests, what these studies do prove is that a dangerous element has been found in HFCS, and our supposed health guardians at the FDA appear to have done nothing to find out whether this is a hazard or not. Until someone can prove NOT, I can’t imagine not avoiding HFCS, especially if you are pregnant or responsible for feeding a young child.

  15. Janet says:

    p.s. Not sure why she didn’t just post a comment, but I got a message from Quaker PR person Candace Mueller who questioned the Environmental Health study, noting, “In that study, traces of mercury are recorded as parts per trillion. This is over 1,000 times more stringent than suggested food industry standards of parts per billion.” She also said Quaker products are safe and added, “we invite anyone to contact us by calling our toll-free hotline at 1-800-367-6287 or on Twitter (@QuakerTalk).”

  16. americangoy says:

    I am an atheist but…. Jesus H Christ!
    HFCS leads to autism, is terrifying on its own, makes us Americans incredibly obese compared to the rest of the world, and now…. now THIS?

  17. Ess says:

    Obviously the CRA and Quaker have to question the study. They have no choice in this. To do otherwise would open a can of… well, soda now (all shook up soda).
    What amazes me the most is how the CRA (and other agribusiness concerns) have basically bought and paid for the FDA through political donations and lobbyists, trading executives with those running the agency, basically so they can cite the FDA as being some sort of authority that certifies their products which magically “assures” us of the “safety & wholesomeness” of their products, when the FDA wouldn’t if it was operating as it was originally intended to, which is as a protection for the citizens of the government it comes from.
    I’m disappointed these weren’t tested long before HFCS was even allowed to dominate our foods. Kissinger did say, “Control the oil and you control nations, control the food and you control people.” We need to take back control.
    For the record, it’s not so much the dosage but what our bodies do with that which we absorb. We wouldn’t absorb something if it wasn’t there. There’s lots of vitamins and other nutrients we don’t absorb much of in comparison to what we take in but that doesn’t mean we don’t get enough (or even too much as we can with iron). Mercury is persistent and cumulative so we don’t need to get a huge amount in each dose. That means it is indeed the dosage, dosage, dosage, infinity. Nice though that there is verification that it can be quite an issue from fish…
    Thank you Janet and Tom Philpott (and Beth) for being the voices of reason in the obfuscation from those who tell us genetically modified corn broken down and put back together with several other genetically engineered organisms and caustic ingredients and huge manufacturing plants is “Natural” like something we could pick while out in the woods. Pfft!
    Next they’ll be telling us it’s a whole food… once they’ve figured out how to redefine whole.

  18. Sara Hudson says:

    My response to the CRA’s press release…
    “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.”

     That’s good, you should be completely switched over to mercury-free versions. As far as “outdated information”: the press release seems to be responding only to the Environmental Health study, not the IATF study. Yes, the experiments performed in the EH study were done in 2005. However, the IATF study, which tested 55 commercial food products, was done in the fall of 2008. So, as recently as 3 months ago, significant concentrations of mercury were found in commercially available foods containing HFCS – and it was found in a third of them. That does not sound ‘outdated’ to me. I won’t even touch “of dubious significance”. That is an insult to all our intelligences here.

    “High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets FDA’s requirements for the use of the term ‘natural.” 

    I really hope that this scandal highlights for more people exactly how unnatural HFCS is. Yes, the final product is all molecules of carbon-containing compounds that all came from the corn itself (probably. mostly). But the process used to produce HFCS is about as far from a definition of ‘natural’ as can be imagined. It may meet the FDA’s requirements for the use of the term natural for the purposes of advertising (since ‘natural’ means nothing these days in regulatory advertising). It does not meet MY definition of something I would ever want to eat.

  19. Alex says:

    Actually people should look up the toxicology data on mercury before making all these claims about things such as mercury is cumulative, and there is no safe level of mercury. Your body is constantly eliminating mercury, and minute doses particularly in adults has no real long term effects. This study, and this article scream of typical media alarmism as opposed to the reality that we live in

  20. Hey, um, did anyone notice the levels being detected? They were in parts per <em>trillion</em>. Fried starchy foods (like french fries) have neurotoxins at parts-per-billion levels, and it’s not a big issue.
    I second the motion that this study did not determine that the mercury came from the HFCS. Why would it be conspicuously absent from soft drinks, yet present in other foods that contain HFCS? Why was there no comparison with non-HFCS-containing foods of the same brand? Why would dairy products have so much more mercury than other products that contain more sugar?
    They’ve got a plausible mechanism, they’ve got a question it solves, and they’ve got mercury in the end product… why did they not get themselves a hold of some HFCS and test it directly? Was it that hard to get it in pure form?
    It would help if it was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, too. But that would have required setting up a proper study with CONTROLS. I would flunk an undergrad that conducted a study with no controls, so why does this get a passing grade?
    Don’t get me wrong, I think caustic soda manufacturers should, if they haven’t already, switch to non-mercury methods, particularly as it would reduce the demand for mercury, and reduce the spewing of the stuff into the environment. But this hardly qualifies as a ‘debacle.’

  21. My name is Chris Coccaro; I am an intern working with an ocean conservation group called Oceana. We are working on a campaign aimed at stopping mercury pollution in seafood. I read your blog and found your writing on the subject to be both well informed and well composed. I thought you would be interested in a new article that has been released implicating the contamination of High Fructose Corn Syrup with Mercury. There is a blog about this subject on our website which you can find here. Thank you and happy blogging.

  22. Jmatt says:

    We are under attack on many fronts by our own trusted institutions. In banking, investment, health care & food, unscrupulous people do whatever they want to maximize profits. We need more peer reviewed scientific study and more whistle blowers to bring these issues to light.  Its not a ‘hippie’ thing its about sickness and death in America.

    The Corn industry claims that they are using new technology for NaOH and HCl production. The fact is that there are still plenty of Mercury Cell Chlor-Alkali plants in and outside of the US. Today these materials are sourced worldwide at the cheapest prices available.

    What Hg levels are safe? Why is the autism rate at an all time high? What effect do the (3) genetically modified enzymes used have on HFCS impurities? These are valid questions, due diligence is needed and that will not come from the very politically astute Corn Lobby. The American Food Industry does not have a “Farm to Fork” food certification requirement as other countries have. Their ability to resist such controls has placed us at risk to multiple tainted food products on an all to regular basis.

  23. otbricki says:

    Most of this doesn’t make any scientific sense at all. For example the 38 toms of missing mercury from clor-alkali plants is totally insignificant given that mercury entering the environment from volcanoes and other geological sources is in the range of 3,000 tons per year.
    And 100 ppt of mecury in HFCS vs a 2 ppb limit in drinking water? Sure that is significant. NOT.
    Atmospheric levels of mercury near volcanos (Hawaiian Islands for example) cause exposure levels far in excess of these trace amounts.

  24. Re: Jmatt
    <blockquote>What effect do the (3) genetically modified enzymes used have on HFCS impurities?</blockquote>
    ZOMG! Teh enzeimz R genneticully mawdifyd wer gona dy!
    Assuming that something is dangerous because of the “genetically modified” stigma when we have countless real dangers in our food supply is irrational.

  25. Ess says:

    ZOMG! Mocking others really adds to the discussion. Says so much about those who choose to use it. But I understand how it’s used to distract from the either/or red herring of we can either be alarmed by mercury *or* the bajillions of other real dangers… which in its way is nice since there is acknowledgment of the dangers just as above, in another comment, there is a nod to the mercury in fish rather than the usual denial. 
    It’s kind of like the either/or presented to us about treating livestock well. We’re told with all the starving and mistreated children in the world we can either love them *or* animals, with the implications being if we choose the furry ones then we are some sort of inhuman scum. No, we can love both and indeed by doing so we raise the level of care up for both. 
    To ignore the unnatural process of obtaining HFCS despite its FDA bought and paid for approval is to allow it to grow unchecked. That’s what has us here in the first place with e coli burgers, salmonella omelets and mercury fish and the other irrational yet countless real dangers in our food supply.

  26. “To ignore the unnatural process of obtaining HFCS despite its”
    Natural is not a reliable shortcut to determining safety. Mercury, for example, is natural, as is arsenic and snake venom. E. coli, Salmonella, and countless other pathogens are all natural. Healthy farm animals were even found to harbor these pathogens without showing signs of disease.
    The Genetic Engineering scare is itself a red herring. There are countless real and demonstrated dangers in our food supply (seriously, parts per trillion of mercury from a study conducted without controls?) that we could be directing our attention to. Take raw milk, for example, which still gets people sick today. Melamine, salmonella in a peanut plant, high amounts of sugar in organic baby food – these are very present and potent problems. A gene engineered into a bacterium to produce large quantities of an enzyme that would otherwise be difficult to produce ‘naturally,’ doesn’t rank high up on the real risk scale.
    On the scale of Perceived Risk, however, it ranks high. People make determinations of risk based upon the perceived risk and not the actual risk, thus, resulting in attention that is drawn away from problems that pose a greater risk. Ideally, it is not either-or. But practically, it is. The end result is that you have a lot of wasted energy, and little gain in public safety. That is why it is irrational.
    That is why I think this issue over trace amounts of mercury in these foods is ultimately not going to help anyone, except those that have declared war on sugar.

  27. johnnyc says:

    It’s not really surprising that they find some mercury in HFCS given the intensive industrial processes required to manufacture it. I know people who drink multiple soft drinks with HFCS every day