Any safety issue raised, if it pertains to damning the industry, must be put under a thorough scanner to get at the truth. This is especially true after the unnecessary noise raised against soft drink manufacturers in India regarding high pesticide content in their products. All that has happened due to the episode was considerable market flak for their products for some time. Many pointed out at that time how our very own government is indifferent in its constitutional obligation to provide the citizens with clean and safe water which is basic for survival. More than 90% of water supplied through the so called protected water supply schemes in the country does not meet with global standards for potable water and it is only the helplessness of the people that ensures continuation of such a pitiable conditions in this country. Well to do citizenry can afford to spend what it takes to get pure water through treatment or buying treated water from bottled water industry. The latest safety issue that has hit food industry is the reported presence of mercury in some foods and the potential risks to human life.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), also referred to as Isoglucose or glucose-fructose in some countries, already being blamed for the obesity epidemic in the western world, is again in the focus because of some reports detecting mercury in many food and beverage products manufactured and marketed by the industry. Further investigation has turned the spot light on HFCS which is made from corn starch using alkali at one stage. Mercury contamination is thought to be occurring during the conversion of starch to glucose through hydrolysis where alkali is used to neutralize the acid after the hydrolysis. Glucose syrup is then treated with glucose isomerase enzyme to get HFCS-42 containing 42% fructose which is then concentrated to HFCS-90 by liquid chromatography. From HFCS-90 is made HFCS-55 containing 55% fructose and rest glucose. This product is equal to sucrose or cane sugar in sweetness and is most commonly used in soft drinks manufacture. HFCS-42 finds extensive use in other foods including baked goods. Food industry world over prefers HFCS to cane sugar because of cost and user convenience.
If one cares to look at the alkali manufacturing process, some processors make alkali in mercury cells and if the technology is not proper, there is possibility of mercury contamination in the product. In the age old Mercury Cell process sodium ions are reduced to metallic sodium which then forms amalgam with mercury cathode and reacting with water generates sodium hydroxide. Use of mercury tainted alkali when used in processing of foods, can transfer a part of the mercury into the foods. But use of mercury cells has been declining with the advent of processes using Diaphragm Cells and Membrane Cells, both not using mercury cathodes. Therefore how serious this problem is difficult to gauge.
Average consumption of HFCS in USA is estimated at 12 teaspoons a day for adults but it could be more with teen agers who consume soft drinks based on HFCS. The mercury content in HFCS found in some samples was about 0.57 micro gram per gram (ug/g) and this works out to 34.2 ug in 12 tea spoons of HFCS which is much beyond the safety limit of 5.5 ug per day. Mercury is linked to learning disabilities in children and heart diseases in adults. Many products in the western markets containing HFCS as first or second highest ingredient tested positive for presence of mercury and these include Quaker, Hershey's, Kraft and Smuckers, all popular brands in that country.
Should we be too much concerned about mercury ingestion via HFCS in India? Probably not because HFCS use by Indian food processing industry is practically nil since this is a country of cane sugar which is available in plenty. But we must have concern about use of alkali in some processes like chemical peeling of fruits and vegetables, alkalization of cocoa, caramel production, poultry scalding, ice cream production etc. However here also the production of the above type of food products is not considered high warranting an alarm. It may be prudent to keep in mind the potential for such risks in future when the processing sector achieves high growth in the coming years.