Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Claims of Mercury In High Fructose Corn Syrup May Be Overstated; At Least Premature

I was posting on the chlor-alkali industry the other day and added an update that appeared in the literature that same day. I jumped on and added the bit about mercury found in HFCS without noting the research was preliminary and not up to scientific standards. I found a rebuttal post on another site, by Karl Haro von Mogel, on The Inoculated Mind, that I thought deserved to be aired.

I don't take back my contention that using mercury in chlor-alkali plants should be stoppped immediately (not just phased out), but I do want to give science its rightly place in the sunshine. So a couple excerpts from The Inoculated Mind follow;

In science you always.


Always use controls.

That is the very basis of science, for without a control running next to your experiment, you have no isolated variables, no conclusions that can be drawn from it, and no theories that it can support.

So when I was reading the Ethicurean, as I regularly do, I was simply flabbergasted at this post: Mercury in HFCS. Apparently, a research paper came out proclaiming that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)-containing products had detectable levels of mercury. The explanation given was that HFCS is made using alkali soda, from plants that use mercury in the process of synthesizing it. (Except this has been for the most part phased out)

I took a look at the paper, and the first thing that I noticed was that it was not a peer-reviewed study. So this has not passed through the rigors of experimentation, review, re-testing if needed, and publication in a scientific journal.
The second thing I noticed was that the paper was mostly an argument about how unhealthy the American Diet is, and the big calorie baddie is HFCS.
The ’study’ itself consisted of taking samples of foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup and testing them for levels of mercury. Those foods and the brands that made them were in the report, and they found that some of the foods had detectable levels of mercury in them. What levels? Parts per trillion. These are really low levels. Drinking water has a limit of 2 parts per billion, which means that you can have 100 times as much mercury in drinking water as is in these foods. The tap water you use to make your oatmeal might have more mercury than the oatmeal itself.

Their conclusion was that the mercury came from HFCS, and made a list of recommendations about what should be done about this sciency conclusion. But wait, did they actually prove that the mercury came from the corn syrup?

No. In order to demonstrate this scientifically, you have to have controls. There’s no telling where the mercury came from without isolating the variables. Were the oats sucking up mercury in the soil? Were the cows that produced the chocolate milk they tested the actual source of the highest mercury levels they found in their survey?

The article goes on pressing the issue of not reporting unsubstantiated claims as science. It calls this practice "...Science By Press Release", of which in this case I was found guilty.

But Karl goes on to say;

For the record, I’m a big fan of Green Chemistry - changing industrial chemical processes to be more environmentally-friendly. If there are chlor-alkali plants that still use mercury somewhere, they should change their methods of synthesizing it, at least because it will reduce demand for mercury, and eliminate the concomitant emissions. But instant sweetened Oatmeal is not the right rallying cry. It reminds me of when Steven Milloy claimed that Fluorescent Replacement lights were toxic superfund-sites-in-the-home waiting to happen. Same deal, different politics.


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