High fructose corn syrup is a significant source of mercury that has not previously been considered. That’s the conclusion of a study released this week by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. An earlier study found mercury in about half of U.S.-made high fructose corn syrup, and the new study confirms that detectable levels of mercury are present in foods that feature high fructose corn syrup, including granola bars, ketchup, jelly, and yogurt. The levels are not nearly as high as have been reported in fish, but are a greater concern because most U.S.-made processed foods contain high fructose corn syrup, so people could be eating significant levels of mercury every day.
High fructose corn syrup is considered a “natural” sweetener because it features actual sugar molecules, but there is little that is natural about it. It is manufactured through a chemical process that depends on acids, enzymes, solvents, and heat. Traces of the chemicals used to produce high fructose corn syrup remain in the final product, and the researchers believe mercury is a contaminant in one of those chemicals.
Mercury contamination is not the only reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup contributes to hunger and weight gain and is suspected of contributing generally to inflammation-related diseases. But mercury may be the most important reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup. Mercury is the most potent of heavy metals, poisoning every part of the body it comes in contact with. Scientists do not consider any level of mercury exposure to be completely safe. The average U.S. consumer could be getting more than 10 milligrams of mercury per year just by eating food containing high fructose corn syrup. That is similar to the level of mercury exposure that consumers are thought to be getting from fish, but while you can avoid mercury from fish by not eating fish, to avoid mercury from high fructose corn syrup would mean reading the ingredients of everything you buy and avoiding most of the foods in the supermarket.
For the moment, that may be the only strategy available. People who are at risk of becoming overweight should avoid high fructose corn syrup anyway because of its link to hunger and weight gain. The threat of mercury poisoning is an even bigger reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup, at least for now.