Feb 032009
Authors: Ryan Nowell

Did any of you catch those public service announcements that aired recently — the ones with people reassuring their ignorant friends that high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t have any artificial ingredients, is fine in moderation and is, indeed, made from corn?

Well, two new studies by Environmental Health and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that the process in which we make this 100 percent all-natural, made-from-vitamins-and-dreams wonder tonic is leaving trace amounts of mercury in our food.

Nearly a third of the 55 brand-name items tested came up positive, and these aren’t your low-end cereals in a bag or Kroger “Moreo kookie” knock-offs, either. According to ABC News, Hershey’s, Quaker, Hunt’s, Smuckers, Yoplait, Kraft and Nutri-Grain were among the products bought off of shelves in August 2008 that were shown to have traces.

And while we’re not talking a lot — in the range of parts per trillion — we are talking, firstly, about corn syrup, one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in American commercial foods and secondly, mercury, one the most dangerous elemental neurotoxins in existence.

While a hunk of tuna is still going to have far more mercury in it than any of the products tested, that’s a risk most fish connoisseurs are aware they’re taking. But the guy with the ho-ho and coke, not so much.

Though the FDA stated in July of last year that corn syrup can be considered a “natural” ingredient, HFCS (as the kids are calling it) is made by taking already highly-processed, caustic soda-treated cornstarch and dumping it into a tank of (organic) hydrochloric acid, making regular corn syrup. Then, through a process of (holistic) enzyme conversion, involving (whole grain) sodium carbonate and (free range) magnesium sulfate, along with a couple trips through a fractionation column (butter-churn), you eventual convert the corn’s mildly sweet dextrose into insanely sweet fructose.

So basically, HFCS is “made from corn” in about the same way you and I are made from sperm: while it was one of our initial ingredients, a bit of time and a series of chemical processes later, and the phrasing becomes a bit misleading.

HFCS is only all-natural if you would consider an industrial centrifuge as part of the local flora.

The Corn Refiners Association was scandalized at the findings and quickly pointed out that their industry no longer uses mercury-treated re-agents (which is not entirely true: four of their plants still do) and that one of the studies used evidence from as far back as 2005 (though, how pointing out the long-standing nature of the problem helps their argument any is a mystery).

The project leader, Renee Dufault, had indeed included four-year-old evidence, which she had gathered while employed by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dufault had urged the agency about the mercury contamination her tests had found — then in 45 percent of the products she tested — and in three years garnered nothing but sealed lips and cold-shoulders.

Last year she quit, recently repeated the experiment and included her original findings.

In all fairness, this is probably another one of those alarmist headline grabbers that crop up whenever “Scientists Discover” something.

There’s some argument as to whether the procedures used in the studies are sound. Depending on who you ask, measuring something in parts per trillion is a surefire way to reveal all sorts of things you’d rather not ingest, regardless of what you’re looking at.

Whether Dufault is an admirable whistle blower or a politicizing attention grabber is yet to be seen. It could take a long time before the affect on the public, if any, can be determined.

In the mean time, we can all continue to enjoy our favorite all-natural sweetener/mercury homeopath, safe in the knowledge that it has the same calories as sugar (rising obesity notwithstanding), is fine in moderation (too bad it’s in everything we buy), and is “made from corn.”

Ryan Nowell is a senior English major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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