Friday, January 30, 2009

Beat It

Tim Minchin’s reading of his beat poem Storm was met with rave reviews in the skeptic community. If you read the transcipt in lieu of a recording, look again… Tim has released a high-quality recording on YouTube. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sour Sweets

Update 1/31/09: Today’s episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe discusses this issue.

The other day an acquaintance asked for my opinion on an article about mercury contamination in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Here’s my response—corrections welcome:

My first smart-ass response is “good thing I only drink cane sugar or diet sodas.” ;)

My initial, unreasoned, reactionary response to the article itself is “yay… more sensationalist hyperbole from the Huff.”

First off, let me say that I’m no fan of HFCS. It has a sour aftertaste, contributes more to obesity than other sugars, and only exists due to horribly flawed protectionist tariffs on sugar and corporate subsidies on corn production. In other words, as with bottled water we discussed previously, there are enough legitimate, uncontroversial reasons to dislike HFCS that we don’t need to resort to poorly-supported scare tactics.

Maybe Jeremy Piven didn’t get mercury poisoning from fish at all -- according to the results of a new study released by the Institute for Agriculture and Trace Policy [sic] (IATP), the actor may well have been sickened by soda or candy or anything that contains high fructose corn syrup, which, if you eat processed food in this country means, well, just about anything.

Well, it’s sure starting off like any other sensationalist media take on science. Hijacking an unrelated tragedy (none of the linked papers mention anything about Jeremy Piven) to promote a political agenda... Sound familiar?
Foodies and nutritionists alike have been griping about high fructose corn syrup for years, and the industry has responded with an “astroturf” campaign and a level of secrecy generally reserved for military officials or secret societies (see Corn Refiners’ Association president Audrae Erickson’s stonewalling performance in King Corn).

Of course, I wouldn’t want to show my hand either, if the making of my product could be described as the undertaking of a “small Manhattan Project” (see eye-glazing production info here).

Now they try to intimidate the reader with technical jargon in an attempt to instill a fear of the unknown. There is absolutely nothing inherently damning about anything mentioned in the “production info here” link. For instance:

HFCS has the exact same sweetness and taste as an equal amount of sucrose from cane or beet sugar but it is obviously much more complicated to make, involving vats of murky fermenting liquid, fungus and chemical tweaking, all of which take place in one of 16 chemical plants located in the Corn Belt.
Now wait a minute… How is that any different from the production of beer, wine, sourdough bread, tofu, soy sauce, cheese, or any number of other chemical and biological processes used to produce food for which any health food nut would spend an extra order of magnitude at Whole Foods?
But as it turns out, the HFCS industry has been hiding some major skeletons in its closet -- according to the IATP study (pdf), over 30% of products containing the substance tested positive for mercury.
Have you noticed that nowhere in this article (or the press release from IATP) is there any mention of how much mercury is in the tested products? According to the study, Quaker Oatmeal to Go tested the highest at 350ppt—not ppm (parts per million)…not ppb (parts per billion)…but 350 parts per trillion. The FDA’s acceptable limit in food is one part per million (1,000,000ppt). Canada is a bit more conservative with a limit of 0.5ppm (500,000 ppt). In other words, the most mercury-laden product tested in the study contains 0.07% of the maximum recommended limit in Canada, and only 0.035% of the maximum recommended limit in the US.

So… Only about 30% of the tested products contain any mercury at all. And those that do have minute fractions of the amounts considered safe by two world leaders. Yeah, real scary.

What makes this news truly shocking is not just that the manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup would put consumers’ health at risk, but that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew about the mercury in the syrup, and has been sitting on this information since 2005.

Here’s the connection, according to the IATP press release (pdf): The IATP study comes on the heels of another study, conducted in 2005 but only recently published by the scientific journal, Environmental Health, which revealed that nearly 50 percent of commercial HFCS samples tested positive for the heavy metal. Renee Dufault, who was working for the FDA at the time, was among the 2005 study’s authors. In spite of Dufault’s involvement in the study, the FDA sat silent on this one for three years, and in fact last August, allowed manufacturers to call the sweetener “natural.”

According to the abstract of the Environmental Health study, “[t]he samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup.” Let’s put acceptable limits to the test again… First you have to consider that no one is going around drinking bottles of pure HFCS. A quick google shows there’s about 40 grams of HFCS in a 355g can of soda. This means one of the most highly-concentrated sources of HFCS only has about 11% of the concentration reported in the study. So now we’re down to 0.064ppm (1 microgram per gram is equivalent to 1ppm), or 64,000ppt, still only 12.8% of the Canadian limit or 6.4% of the US limit.

And again, the article overplays the maximums while ignoring the rest. Looking over the only data table from the study, fewer than half of the samples tested show any detectable levels of mercury. All but one of the positive tests were from a single manufacturer, and only two manufacturers were tested. More than half of the positive results have less than half of the maximum reported concentration.

Another interesting phenomenon is that these measurements are two orders of magnitude higher than the more recent (and arguably more biased) IATP study. Perhaps the levels have gone down in the last 4 years. Perhaps the measurements of the original study were flawed. Perhaps the IATP’s measurements were flawed in the other direction. Who knows? Regardless, neither of them are reporting concentrations that should raise any general alarms.
Here’s how the mercury gets in there, according to Janet at the Ethicurean:
How did the heavy metal get in there? In making HFCS -- that “natural” sweetener, as the Corn Refiners Associaton [sic] likes to call it -- caustic soda is one ingredient used to separate corn starch from the corn kernel. Apparently most caustic soda for years has been produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants, where it can be contaminated with mercury that it passes on to the HFCS, and then to consumers.
And more from the press release:
“While the FDA had evidence that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury four years ago, the agency did not inform consumers, help change industry practice or conduct additional testing.”
And on why this matters:
“Mercury is toxic in all its forms,” said IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., and a co-author in both studies.

This statement really doesn’t say anything meaningful (though with the same doctor behind both studies you have to wonder if there’s any bias being introduced). Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Great. How toxic is each form? How much of each form do you need to consume before ill effects? Does mercury build up cumulatively in the body? (Hint: it doesn’t… The damage mercury does can have a cumulative effect, but you have to be exposed to levels dangerous enough to produce the damage in the first place).

Everything is toxic in all its forms given enough exposure.

The reason the FDA “sat on it?” Because there was no “it” there.

“Given how much high fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply.”

But according to your own studies, the amounts of mercury in HFCS are well within established safety limits. Am I missing some connection?

By the way, this article shot itself in the foot in the very first paragraph: “anything that contains high fructose corn syrup, which, if you eat processed food in this country means, well, just about anything.” So if mercury is such a widespread problem in HFCS, then why isn’t the vast majority of the population suffering its ill effects?

In China, heads might roll over a scandal like this one, at least if the country received global attention for its allowing corrupt health officials’ greasy palms come before, um, public health.
Heh… Gotta throw in the comparison to China for good measure. Your skill in Journalism has increased by one point.
Of course, in this country, Dufault’s neck is safe. But what about the health of American consumers? Let’s see the Corn Refiners’ Association try to spin this one.

Originally posted on The Green Fork.

All in all, the threat of mercury poisoning is much less significant than all the other problems HFCS brings to the table. If these studies have anything to say to the average person it would be this: “If you have a preexisting sensitivity to mercury (including pregnant/nursing women, and young children) you may want to consider avoiding HFCS until more research is conducted.” However, I don’t even know if I’d go that far... None of the studies make comparisons to any other common food products, so there may be even worse sources of mercury that no one is crying over.

Perhaps the next step should be to look for a correlation between HFCS prevalence and the occurrence of mercury-related illnesses. Appropriately controlled, this would be far more meaningful than either of the two horror studies this article quotes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


None of this is likely worth quoting.

Don’t use string formatting/conversion functions to round, truncate, or otherwise mathematically manipulate numerical values.

I’d rather see 100 murderers go free than one innocent life taken in the name of Justice.

Don't use Real values when dealing with money.

Question everything but don’t close your mind to answers.