Ah.. High Fructose Corn Syrup. The "natural" additive everyone loves to hate. Myself included.
I've systematically cut out (almost) all the HFCS from my diet. I started a few years ago, I converted Dave shortly after we started dating and I'm not sure if it's coincidence or not, but my parents are more alert now to the HFCS lurking in the grocery store. And lurk it certainly does. When I started my no-HFCS diet, I was surprised at how many places it was lurking. Sodas were no surprise, but what about cereals, breads and pasta sauces? What was it doing in there? I've even found it in lunch meats, cheese products, yogurt, fruit juice, soups, canned fruit and salsa. The US Department of Agriculture reports that on average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS, accounting for approximately 1 in 10 calories. With certain populations, including teenagers and college aged African Americans easily consuming as much as 500-700 calories a day of HFCS.
Why is it in so many things? Well it's cheap, it's sweet and according the FDA it's GRAS. (generally recognized as safe) The first two are perennial favorites of American manufacturers. The last means it doesn't have strenuous testing or reporting requirements.
The GRAS designation basically says that although a food ingredient hasn’t been completely studied or tested for safety, the FDA a priori considers it to be safe, putting the onus instead on the public to somehow marshal evidence after the fact that consumers have been harmed by it.
The FDA’s regulations provide that GRAS ingredients must be reexamined in light of new scientific information. The FDA has been petitioned with no response to reconsider HFCS status as GRAS, given the building evidence of its health impacts. source
One of the more recent findings includes a peer reviewed scientific study published in the Environmental Health journal that finds HFCS to be routinely contaminated with mercury. In order to separate the corn starch from the corn kernel, there's a substance called caustic soda applied to the HFCS and that caustic soda is derived from mercury cells and can be contaminated by them. (I think caustic soda is lye, but I'm not sure) The Environmental Health report lists mercury levels up to 0.570 micrograms (ug) mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup. If you combine that upper limit with the USDA's reported average American intake of 50g of corn syrup a day, a rough estimate puts total mercury ingestion via HFCS of up to 28.5ug total mercury/day. Now, stay with me here. :-) The EPA has only established guidelines for methylmercury. This is the form found in large fish, who live in contaminated waters. (Contaminated in no small part by the caustic soda manufacturers mentioned above.) There are NO guidelines for intake of straight Mercury. I think we can safely assume it's not very high though. The methylmercury guidelines recommend no more than 0.1 ug/kg/day for women and children. That's less than 5.5 ug/day, FAR lower than the possible intake of 28.5ug with contaminated HFCS.
So, if you've followed me this far, a few caveats. First, not ALL HFCS is contaminated. There are manufacturers of caustic soda who don't use the mercury cell method. That caustic soda also gets used in HFCS creation. HFCS made with that caustic soda will not be contaminate with mercury. Also, the Corn Refiners Association, (the ones with all the nifty "Sweet Surprise" commercials touting the benefits of HFCS) had this to say about the study.
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. -- Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association.
Now the tricky thing about what Erickson just said, is he DIDN'T say they ONLY used the mercury free versions. He only said that those version had been used. He also DIDN'T dispute that versions exist which are contaminated. Now, maybe I'm being too analytical about what he says. But, even if you take it at face value, and assume they are using entirely mercury free methods now, he doesn't dispute that at one time they used the mercury contaminated versions, and that the contamination was something they didn't feel like sharing with consumers. It makes you wonder what else they aren't sharing.
I know I'm not going to risk it by switching back to foods sweetened with HFCS. I'll take my sucrose in the form of cane sugar or powdered Stevia. Minimal processing is, in my opinion, the key for healthy foods. Once you start processing, you start to run into things like mercury-grade caustic soda.
I highly recommend you read the entire article, Not So Sweet, Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup. The end of the article has an appendix with all 55 tested, name brand, items and their mercury content.