Some Poison with your Soda Pop?

Last Updated Jan 26, 2009 9:58 PM EST

For Tom Philpott of the environmental news site Grist, high fructose corn syrup is "at best a highly processed, lavishly subsidized, calorie-heavy, nutritional vacuum."

At worst, Philpott wrote on Monday, HFCS is possibly poisonous. According to a study published by the journal Environmental Health, the "natural" sweetener (the FDA recently said that HFCS makers can all it that) is often tainted with mercury, which gets in there via the production process.

As Philpott notes, the study "draws on samples of high-fructose corn syrup taken straight from the factory. But no one drinks the stuff straight." So what about the foods that contain it?

There's mercury in there, too. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade tested products from store shelves and found "detectable mercury" (pdf) in about 31 percent of them.

That doesn't necessarily mean that eating a Hershey bar or a cup of Yoplait (two of the products found to contain traces of mercury) will harm you. "Detectable" doesn't mean "poisonous," except when it does.
Mercury, though, is nasty stuff, and really, there shouldn't be any of it anywhere near our food supply.

But companies that make HFCS put it there. It is part of what Philpott called "a stunning array chemicals required to transform corn into a cane sugar substitute." Among them: hydrochloric acid something called "caustic soda," both of which contain mercury.

The industry is moving to a different process that doesn't involve mercury, but many HFCS plants still use the older process.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Dan Mitchell has spent the past 20 years writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and Web publications. Currently, he writes the What's Online column for the Saturday business section of the New York Times. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, National Public Radio, Business 2.0, and Wired.