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Want some mercury with that?

Monday, March 2, 2009

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I had the flu so badly last week I drank something I haven't drank in over 20 years: ginger ale. And no, it wasn't ginger beer, the stuff in the bottle at the natural grocery that actually has ginger in it. This was the the drink-with-saltines stuff 'cause it makes you feel better somehow.

As I was about to toss the empty bottle in the recycle bin, I decided to brave the label - I'm a devoted label reader, but when I know it'll be awful, I sometimes just pass. So here's what I found: water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), and caramel color. Ugh.

I've seen the movie King Corn, so am well versed in this country's corn syrup problem. Normally, it doesn't cross our threshold. But now that it had, I was grimly reminded about the recent report finding mercury in high fructose corn syrup. So I got all wound up, because as both my husband and now 6-year-old would tell you, that's just what I do.

So the first thing I got mad about was the absurdity of that ingredient list. I mean, that's a drink for humans? The second thing I got mad about was the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) issue, and how crazy screwed up our agriculture and nutrition policy has gotten. But the reason I'm actually writing about it here, with you, is because of the ingredient that wasn't listed on that label but may well have been in the drink: mercury.

Why would there be mercury in my ginger ale? 'Cause it's been found in high-fructose corn syrup, which was definitely present in my ginger ale. These days it wouldn't be far fetched to wonder if this could be an intentional/accidental contaminant that escaped detection. But it's not - it's actually a result of the corn syrup production process. That's right: to convert corn into corn syrup manufacturers use hydrochloric acid and caustic soda (yum) that often contains mercury. While some plants have switched to mercury-free 're-agents,' plenty still use the ones with mercury.

So every time you or your kids eat or drink something sweetened by corn syrup (and most of us do - studies show that 1 in 10 calories are from HFCS, an average of 12 teaspoons a day per person!!), how are you to know whether it has mercury in it? You can't.

The two studies that brought this to light back in January of this year found mercury in first 9 of 20 samples then 1 in 3 of 55 brand-name food samples. Feeling reassured? You can read the full report and see a list of the contaminated products on The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's (IATP) web site.

Is this fixable? As I'm sure you know, mercury is dangerous business - in any form. So how can we get the mercury out of the HFCS (getting the HFCS out of all that food is a whole other can of worms)? IATP has three reasonable suggestions:

  • Congress should enact legislation proposed by then Senator Barack Obama two years ago to phase out the use of mercury cell technology in U.S. chlorine plants.
  • Corn refining companies that produce high fructose corn syrup should demand that their suppliers of caustic soda do not use mercury cell technology.
  • The Food and Drug Administration should begin testing high fructose corn syrup for mercury and make those findings public.
If 140 nations can start a productive dialog on reducing the use of mercury globally (how nice that the U.S. is actually at the table for this one), surely here in the U.S. we take care of this very preventable, manageable corn syrup problem. Don't you think?

[photo courtesy of flickr commons]