Mommy, Mommy, I'm Scared

Via the environmental blog Thin Green Line:

Check out this post on Bay Area Moms revealing that products with high fructose corn syrup contain mercury. Scary!

I have had some experience working with recreation on lakes that have mercury-contaminated fish  (not good for business) so I thought I would check out the articles.  Mommy Files blog here.  Advocacy group quoted here.  Actual study here.  Test results here.

This strikes me as being right at the focal point of where both the environmental and consumer protection movements went off the rails -- the issue of relative risks.  In short, risks for things with scary names (mercury and radiation being two great examples) cannot seem to be processed rationally.  Everything is toxic, at some concentration.  The key is understanding concentration and relative risks, and not panicking when anyone yells "mercury" in a crowded grocery store.

Before I get into this more, it is a little hard to discuss because I can't really find in the study or the advocacy press releases what forms the mercury take in the HFCS -- it may be they just don't know yet.  The form the mercury is in matters.  Most people would be surprised, but while pure liquid mercury is not good for you, but it isn't particularly toxic when compared to other forms  (just ask Sir Isaac Newton, who used to drink the stuff).  Mercury vapor is really bad, as are certain chemical derivatives of mercury, such as the form often found in fish.

So here is some perspective on mercury concentrations, again remembering these standards often apply to specific chemical variants.  The US legal limit on fish is 1 part per million, or 1 ppm.    The legal US limit on mercury in water is 2 parts per billion, or 2 ppb.  One might think that means the mercury in water is more dangerous, but it is actually in a much less dangerous form (according to my imperfect understanding) than the mercury in fish.  However, it is assumed that one drinks more grams of water a day than grams of fish.  This does not entirely explain the 500-fold discrepancy -- my guess is that this is also a matter of attention, as drinking water standards and contaminants get much more headline plan than for fish (again, in part due to a general inability, particularly in the media, to sort through relative risks).

So then we have HFCS.  The worst test value was apparently in Quaker Oatmeal to Go, which had a value of 350 parts per trillion (ppt).  In other words, the worst sample found anywhere had a mercury level nearly 6 times lower than the federal drinking water standard (2 ppb = 2000 ppt).   What this means is that you would have to eat 63 pounds of Quaker Oatmeal to Go a day to have the same mercury risk as drinking 5 liters of water at the federal standard each day.  And that is the worst product.  Only 17 of 55 products tested had any detectable mercury at all, and only 7 had concentrations over 100 ppt.

Don't even get me started on fish.  8 ounces of fish at the federal standard would have the same mercury as 1,429 pounds of Quaker oatmeal.  The risks are not even in the same ballpark.  The oatmeal risk is three orders of magnitude lower than the fish risk.   I wonder how many of the moms who now quiver at giving their kids oatmeal still feed their kids lots of nutritious fish?

The right way to write this story is not "scary!"  The right way to write this story is "Hey, we found some mercury where we did not expect it, this bears further study, but right now the concentrations are so far lower than you would find in many other everyday foods you eat or drink that it's not worth worrying about.  If you really want to protect your kids from mercury, stay away from fish."

Postscript: I lament the passing of sugar in favor of HFCS.  So often food activists gloss over this issue, preferring to imply it is some kind of corporate conspiracy to give us worse food.  But in fact, the main blame for this shift lies entirely on Congress, which maintains absurdly high sugar tariffs and a continued blockade of Cuba that give us among the highest sugar prices in the world.  Faced with this reality, food manufacturers cleverly found an alternative.   I prefer good old sugar, and implore Congress to ditch corporate welfare for sugar manufacturers


  1. Mike:

    PEL, or Permissible Exposure Limit is what we use in the manufacturing industry (OSHA) when it comes to putting a value on how dangerous something is.

    Asbestos is another example of something that is dangerous only in certain forms. As dust, asbestos is very dangerous to the lungs. However, when wet, it's not dangerous because it cannot become airborne. If eaten, it presents no danger to any other organ.

    I've heard stories of people (and governments) so worried over asbestos exposure in homes back east, they had the asbestos removed from gravity feed boiler pipes. The steam was supposed to ride up the pipes, allowing the cooled steam (water) to run back down the pipes.

    When the asbestos insulation was removed from the pipes, so much heat was lost from the steam through the now uninsulated pipes, the boiler couldn't provide the heat that it could originally.

    The moral of the story is: Asbestos is only dangerous in dust form, often when it's cut. Once it's installed, it very safe, and very fire proof.

  2. M Lewis:

    Don't forget about the People of the Corn.
    ADM gets a lot of money for their Corn Syrup.

  3. bluntobject:

    I had the damndest time finding toxicological information on methylmercury back when light tuna was still much cheaper than the other meats I bought. When I finally tracked it down, it turned out that (at about 170lbs) I could eat a can of light tuna (vs. white tuna, or albacore) every other day and still excrete more methylmercury than I took in. (Different forms of fish -- white tuna vs. light tuna, for example -- tend to have different concentrations of mercury, based on things like how old the fish are when they're harvested.)

    The poison is in the dose. If you drink too much water too fast, it messes up your electrolyte balance and could kill you. If you ingest a sufficiently small amount of mercury -- or Bisphenol-A, or whatever other scary "chemical" is in the news -- your body will likely get rid of it before it gets to be a problem. Most things that we need to live are toxic in too-high quantities.

    But math is hard. Much easier to freak out over the threat du jour and abdicate all responsibility to think.

  4. Elliot:

    Congress' intervention into agriculture is obscene, and I wouldn't doubt if this is another case of a toxin's danger being overblown relative to the actual levels.

    I cut out HFCS from my diet because it is, by it's nature, very unhealthy. Most doctors and diet industry "experts" teach people to fear fat, particularly animal fat. The more I read, the more the evidence runs to the contrary: the worst culprit for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. is sugars (like HFCS)--not because of mercury, but by their very nature in how they affect metabolism. Richard Nikoley (who unfortunately doesn't blog about politics any more) has been citing study after study which debunk the common wisdom about healthy diets. (My own personal anectdote is that I've dropped 30 pounds in 3 months, on a diet rich in animal fats, generally following Nikoley's evolutionary fitness regime.)

    I do eat lots of fish and take fish oil tablets, without worrying about the mercury levels. The benefits outweigh the risk, by a long shot.

  5. feeblemind:

    I doubt if your taste buds can tell the difference between a coke made with hfcs or sugar. Fructose is fructose, whether it comes from sugar or corn.

  6. bbartlog:

    the main blame for this shift lies entirely on Congress, which maintains absurdly high sugar tariffs and a continued blockade of Cuba that give us among the highest sugar prices in the world. Faced with this reality, food manufacturers cleverly found an alternative.

    This sort of elides the role of corporate lobbyists in creating the situation in the first place. It's not like the evil government maintains these tariffs for no reason while noble food manufacturers work night and day to provide us with cheap food despite these machinations; rather you have entities like the above-mentioned ADM, gaming the system so as to maximize demand for their product.

    I doubt if your taste buds can tell the difference between a coke made with hfcs or sugar

    Guess again. I don't drink soda any more (HFCS and sugar are both bad for you) but passing the hfcs/sugar taste test is trivial.

  7. markm:

    Cane sugar is sucrose. That's formed from pairs of simple sugars, fructose + glucose, joined at the reducing ends. (That means that compared to the usual polymerization of carbohydrates, one of the sugars is backwards. It changes how sucrose molecules react with other sucrose or other sugar molecules, and I'd expect that to subtly affect the taste.)

    The sugar extracted for corn syrup is mostly just glucose. For HCFS, half of it is chemically processed into fructose, then mixed with the glucose. But it's just mixed, and then they react however they happen to - quite a lot different than how the sugar cane plant pairs them up and bonds the pairs together.

  8. warrl:

    Sounds to me like (based on the numbers given) if you are really worried about the mercury in your prepared Quaker Oatmeal, you should omit the water and just eat the oatmeal dry.