Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Feverish over Food Additives

Prescript Note: I wasn't the only one baffled by Google's warnings yesterday. Catch this from the Times:"Google’s Internet search service malfunctioned for nearly 55 minutes Saturday morning, upending users around the world with search results that carried false safety warnings and Web links that did not work.

The company acknowledged Saturday that all searches produced links with the same warning message: “This site may harm your computer.” Clicking on any of the links led to an error message stating that the desired site could not be reached.

“What happened?” Google explained in its blog. “Very simply, human error.”

Google said it periodically updates its list of sites suspected of carrying dangerous software that could harm computers, and that Saturday morning a Google employee mistyped a Web address for one such site, causing all sites to be flagged harmful."

I was correct not to lay conspiracy theories down although it was fun speculating. Read on....

Image from King Corn website
The Hub and I watched the documentary King Corn recently. It tells the tale of two friends from college who had their hair tested, discovered they were "mostly made out of corn" and subsequently decided to raise an acre of corn in Iowa. King Corn then documents what happened when they took their harvested corn and tracked where that corn went in the food chain. The film is extremely informative and pretty entertaining with high production values. A la Amazon, if you enjoyed reading Michael Pollan's books I recommend renting King Corn to you without reservation.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the documentary was how close mouthed the high fructose corn syrup (hfcs) producers were. Of all the companies contacted, only one had a spokesperson willing to even speak on camera, and past making certain reassuring statements about the benefits of hfcs in foods (it does hold certain costs down due to farm subsidy policies currently in play making foods cheaper over all), there was nobody who was willing to discuss how hfcs is produced.

Hub and I wondered. How do they make high fructose corn syrup anyway? Why the insistence on such secrecy?

Turns out the process of taking corn and yielding a sweetening syrup uses some pretty potent chemicals in order to restructure starch molecules so they combine in certain ways that make your foods taste sweet. Chemicals you might not normally associate as food friendly, such as caustic soda (lye).

More troubling then is this article in Gourmet Magazine's Politics of the Plate section, titled "High Mercury Corn Syrup" by Barry Estabrook.
Image from Gourmet Magazine by Stephanie Foley

Hold on to your hot plates people, there is mercury in high fructose corn syrup?

According to reports, depending upon how it is manufactured, yes,  yes there is.

The important question this article does not answer is whether or not the mercury found in hfcs is one of the more toxic forms of mercury (ie methylmercury) or is rather occurring in the elemental form that is not easily absorbed into the body and is reasonably harmless.  

That question - what type of mercury - nobody is specifically answering.  (so far)

The report referenced in the Gourmet article purports that when High Fructose Corn Syrup was tested, "total mercury" was found in 45 percent of the samples.

Bottom line, if you are routinely consuming food products using HFCS sweeteners, you are potentially exposing yourself to some form of mercury slightly less than half the time.

Blithely assuming you are HFCS free? Try reading the list of ingredients in your ketchup or salad dressing or for the most common route of exposure, non-diet soft drinks. HFCS or some form of it are used in nearly everything sold on a large scale in the United States that is sweetened.   Even some foods you might not think of as "sweet".  HFCS is also showing up in products we don't think of as foods that we yet put into our mouths, such as toothpaste, mouthwash, or over the counter syrup-style medications.

Holy Minamata's disease, Batman! Must we all abandon Broadwayand/or be doomed to a life of progressive neurologic deficits from mercury poisoning?Calm yourself, Robin, probably not. The study apparently measured only for "total mercury" and did not break down the mercury into types. No where in the documents I could find online was there anything that specifically stated that all or even part of the mercury levels found in HFCS are occurring as methylmercury, or dimethylmercury, two of the most toxic players in the bunch.

What the study does show is that HFCS is apparently picking up (some form of) mercury from those batches made using caustic soda produced by chlorine plants using older mercury cell methodology. The caustic soda is used in the early stages of syrup production to separate the corn starch from the corn kernel. It also "may be used" throughout the HFCS process to maintain a certain pH balance.

Not incidentally, caustic soda is used to produce citric acid and sodium benzoate. So far as I can tell, no studies are currently available to report on mercury levels (if any) detected in either of these other ubiquitous food additives.

Oddest thing about this? When I went interweb hunting to try and discover more information about followup studies or anybody addressing the actual type of mercury detected in the testing? The only site I could find, aside from the original article in Gourmet Magazine online that was not slapped with a Google malware warning "visiting this site may harm your computer" was the industry-sponsored(Corn Refiner's Association) HFCS site ("You're in for a sweet surprise") touting that "HFCS is safe - mercury study is outdated".  An hour later, all the malware warnings had gone away.  Weird and weirder.  

Back to the corn industry folk.  Past a statement released where they challenged the methodology of the mercury level determinations used for the report, the CRA additionally hired a firm, Chem-Risk, to look at the study. You may not be surprised that Chem-Risk reported findings that supported the premise of the folks who hired them.  Checkbook science?  Hard to say. 

So what are we to think?

I doubt this is either entirely junk science or a reason to stop buying foods containing hfcs altogether. Quite honestly, avoiding all hfcs is tricky to do shopping in a standard grocery store on a typical household food budget.Without knowing what form the mercury found in hfcs takes there is certainly no reason to panic. Elemental mercury from a broken thermometer (for instance) is not a problem when handled within guidelines. Mercury is found in eggs, steaks and broccolli as well as fish and other "natural healthy foods" we routinely eat without question. The only way to completely avoid exposure to any toxins is to not eat or drink anything at all.

There is widespread use of hfcs, sodium benzoate and citric acid in foods we all regularly consume, especially soft drinks.  It might behoove us as consumers to demand a non-industry sponsored closer look at the potential for cumulative high or unsafe exposures. We need unbiased research to try and assess the cumulative risks posed by the combination of exposure risks posed by the three additives taken together over time.

For me, no matter what the eventual outcome of the mercury in hfcs debate, this is all simply one more reason to keep highly processed foods out of my diet as much as possible in order to reduce even accidental exposure to additives that while potentially safe in singular exposure, might yet pose an unforeseen risk when taken in combination with the many other additives commonly used.

Michael Pollan and others advise an approach that works well for our household. Shop the exterior of your grocery store, where the fresh items are sold. Dairy, produce and proteins in raw form typically do not expose you to food additives or preservatives. Stay away from those center aisles as much as you can, where you run into the processed and more convenient food items with ingredient labels that read more like a chemisty kit.

What's your take on this? Is this simply scare-em grandstanding? Do you trust anything published and labeled as a "study"? Do you trust the corn refiners themselves to be honest about your risks?  Feel free to sound off in the comments section.


Flapjacks said...

Curt Ellis, one of the dudes from the King Corn (the guy with the lips) recently moved to Austin. He shops at Wheatsville, I have spoken to him several times, and plan on interviewing him for the Breeze. Down with HFCS!

TexasDeb said...

Very cool. I'll keep my eyes out for him.

In the meantime, I was disappointed to find hfcs in my go-to breakfast cereal. I will switch once I finish this box.

Later today rather than watch football I will go on a more complete hfcs hunt in my pantry and refrigerator. Stay tuned for a report on the results.