Chemicals? Or just Stuff?

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Chemicals. Such a simple word. And so misunderstood.

Take this blog post, for example: “Quick Tips: Shopping for Organic and Chemical-Free Foods.” Sounds like a healthy approach to grocery shopping, right?

But if you only eat “chemical-free” food, you’d starve to death – if you didn’t die of thirst first. Every food is made up of chemicals. Water is a chemical substance.

Truth is, everything is made up of chemicals. When we see, smell, taste, hear or touch anything, we’re interacting with various combinations of more than 100 chemical elements. That apple you had for lunch? It’s perfectly natural – and it’s composed of 30 different chemicals, including ten that end with the word “acid.”

OK, we know. You meant the poisonous stuff found in laboratories or industrial warehouses – nasty things like, say, cyanide. But we can’t cut you any slack there, either. That same apple you enjoyed earlier has seeds that contain a chemical called amygdalin. When amygdalin comes into contact with the digestive enzymes in your stomach, it releases cyanide.

Chew enough apple seeds – about 200 of them, give or take — and you’re going to die of cyanide poisoning.

What about the maxim “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it”? Sorry. You probably can’t pronounce 3-methylbut-1-yl ethanoate or phylloquinone, but you happily swallow both of those chemicals every time you eat a banana.

Think you’ll just stick to foods with a short ingredient list from here on out? Think again. According to our friends over at ASAPScience, a banana contains more than 50 chemicals. One of those cute little candy hearts you hand out on Valentine’s Day only has a dozen or so ingredients.

Even trying to separate “synthetic” chemicals from “natural” chemicals doesn’t help much. Nicotine and arsenic are both “natural,” but that doesn’t make them good for you. “Synthetic” simply means “made,” and both humans and living organisms have been making chemicals for millennia. Even carcinogens – chemicals that cause cancer – are mostly “natural”; nearly two-thirds of human carcinogens occur naturally, according to the International Agency for Research in Cancer.

A 2014 report from the UK organization Sense about Science makes it clear that even dangerous substances can be found in minuscule quantities in the least expected places.

“Did you know that the average person has more than a trillion atoms of uranium in their body and that hundreds of these atoms are radioactively disintegrating every day?” notes chemist John Emsley in the report. “It sounds a lot but in weight terms it is truly tiny. All is coming from a perfectly natural source: the food we eat. The uranium comes from uranium that is naturally occurring in soil.”

A popular adage “the dose makes the poison” highlights the fact that all chemicals – even water and oxygen – can be harmful in large doses even if many of them are beneficial in smaller amounts.

Chemicals often are measured in “parts per million” or “parts per billion.” Keep these analogies in mind: One part per million is like a single minute over the course of two years or a single inch on a 16-mile roadway. One part per billion is the same as a single grain of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool or a single sheet in a roll of toilet paper stretching from New York to London.

The next time someone tells you that something is “toxic” or “causes cancer,” try to put that information in context. How much of that substance would you have to eat for it to be toxic? And if you’re told to “avoid chemicals” in your food, be sure not to starve to death! 

Further Reading

  1. Are Apple Seeds Poisonous?, HealthLine, May 20, 2015.
  2. Natural and Synthetic Chemicals in the Diet: A Critical Analysis of Possible Cancer Hazards, Issues in Environmental Science and Technology, Cambridge, UK : Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001.
  3. Quick Tips: Shopping for Organic and Chemical-Free Foods, eMedicineHealth.
  4. Making Sense of Chemical Stories, Sense About Science, Second Edition, 2014.
  5. This is NOT NATURAL, AsapSCIENCE (YouTube), July 15, 2015.

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I cover innovation as my beat, focusing on emerging technologies, scientific discovery, R&D, entrepreneurship, intellectual property and market transfer.

I have more than three decades of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, websites, and book publishers.

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