Bad Things In Our Food: Mercury

by in Food News, Food Safety, April 1, 2009

seafood

First, mercury is in fish and now it’s in high-fructose corn syrup! What’s going on? Learn more about how this toxin gets into our food and ways to avoid it.

Mercury in Fish
Since the late 1990s, the FDA has warned that eating too much high-mercury fish can lead to neurological damage, especially to young children and unborn babies. Pregnant women and women of child bearing age shouldn’t be eating more than 12 ounces of fish per week (that’s two meals per week).

Where is this mercury coming from? MethylMercury (a form of mercury) occurs naturally in the environment and also is released into the air by coal-burning power plants. The airborne mercury then moves to our streams and oceans (our ecosystem at work), where nearly all fish and shellfish absorb some level of it. The science indicates that larger fish, which might live longer, accumulate more of it throughout their lives. These include swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Other fish have varying levels of mercury — some low-mercury seafood include cod, tilapia, shrimp and salmon. If you’re not sure about your favorite seafood, this mercury calculator is helpful. The site — Gotmercury.org — also has a downloadable mobile version, which is handy for restaurants or when food shopping.

Skeptical about these claims or possible negative effects? Don’t be. Entourage star Jeremy Pivens was eating sushi twice a day until mercury intoxication made him sick.

Despite the reports, mercury-heavy foods are still out there. A 2008, New York Times article revealed that numerous sushi restaurants in Manhattan contained more than the allowable levels of mercury. Signs of mercury intoxication include numbness in the hands and feet, impaired speech, hearing and walking, muscle weakness, skin rashes, memory loss and even mental disturbances.

If you want to know more, the Evironmental Protection Agency’s site (EPA) has some helpful info.

Mercury in High Fructose Corn Syrup
You’ve likely seen the news — two recent studies found mercury in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a manufactured sweetener widely used in packaged foods. The first study published in Environmental Health found a detectable level of mercury in 9 out of 20 samples of commercial HFCS. A second study found that almost half the tested samples of commercial HFCS contained the toxin. More troubling: researchers tested 55 popular brand-name foods and beverages that list HFCS as the first or second ingredient — about a third contained mercury.

If you’re not familiar with HFCS, the sweetener is added to sodas, yogurts, soups, lunch meats, breakfast bars — tons of foods that you and your kids might be eating! And remember what I said: mercury has been linked to neurological damage in kids.

The Bottom Line
This all sounds like a lot of doom and gloom — and you might be rightfully wary of yet another food scare. So how worried should we be about the mercury found in HFCS? The good news is mercury-free HFCS is available and, in a recent review, researchers found soft drinks to be practically mercury-free. (Remember, your best bet is to always avoid HFCS if you can — by eating homemade, fresh meals.)

Fish, however, is still a problem. One of my favorite food experts, Dr. Marion Nestle, the author of Food Politics, agrees that mercury is unhealthy and environmental contamination could play a role. Her call for action includes changing the process of making HFCS and looking for ways to clean up and avoid unnecessary pollution that can affect our food and overall health.

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