Ingredients of a an all natural egg by James Kennedy

The Chemicals in Your Food

Do you worry about α-(5,6-dimethylbenzimidazolyl)cobamidcyanide and how much of it is in your food? What about (2S)-2-[(4-{[(2-amino-4-hydroxypteridin-6-yl)methyl]amino}phenyl)formamido]pentanedioic acid or even (3β,5Z,7E)-9,10-secocholesta-5,7,10(19)-trien-3-ol? It’s something that often crosses my mind. And if you’re living in Europe (and a few other countries) you have a whole raft of E numbers to deal with, too. What about E100 or the ubiquitous E300? Though, no doubt, each country comes with its own list of chemicals and additives.

These days there are as many diet slogans and catchphrases as there are diets doing the rounds. There’s JERF -Just Eat Real Food – which leads to the inevitable question “But what exactly is real food?” There’s IIFYM-If It Fits Your Macros-eat what you want so long as you get your ‘macros’ right. There’s ‘clean eating’ and ‘Eat less, move more” so on and so forth. All nice and prosaic and thoroughly unhelpful.

Then there’s ‘If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it’ and all its different incarnations. This particular saying tends to rear its ugly head with increasing frequency on my social media feeds and seems to be a mantra oft-repeated by people who really should know better. I’m not sure where it comes from, though possibly it stems from Michael Pollan’s famous quote ‘If your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.’ Now, I doubt if either of my grandmothers would recognize many of the things I eat as food; sashimi, kimchi, basashi (raw horse meat), but I digress.

There’s no doubt that the side of any box or packet reads like a pharmacopoeia these days, and for many, most of what is written there will be unfamiliar, if not downright alien. Instinctively, we tend to reject what is different or ‘unnatural’ and our brains, honed by evolution, have the darndest time perceiving the world in terms of chemistry, at least on a conscious level. Add to the fact that it seems almost like a badge of honour to some that they didn’t fare well in science and chemistry at school.

We end up in a state we come become suspicious of anything we don’t understand With the growing realization that perhaps a lot of what modernity has to offer may have undesired or deleterious effects because our biology and the way evolution has shaped us comes a growing set of problems, the key issue though perhaps simply is to separate the good from the bad rather than just lumping them all into the same all together.

Over the last couple of years there has a lot written on the subject of chemophobia and opinion seems to be sharply divided even within the science community. At one extreme you’ve got the ‘Everything is chemical. Get over it, already.’  brigade and at the other a growing movement of often highly qualified and knowledgeable people decrying chemicals -there’s that word again- in our food, gluten, fructose, monosodium glutamate, phenylalanine, astaxanthin, sodium nitrites, azodicarbonamide, formaldehyde  are just a few that come to mind.

Now, I don’t want to get into the particulars of those today in any great depth for the sake of brevity, but use them to illustrate how easily it is for people to easily become overwhelmed until it’s all reduced to that nasty pejorative; chemical.

This isn’t helped at all when food marketers dive in with labelling like ‘free from artificial colours and preservatives’, ‘all natural ingredients’. Companies overreact to unwarranted public concern over certain ‘chemicals’ in their products.

Even sources I have a lot of time and respect for often go overboard, using emotive language and really driving the word ‘chemical’ home as something dangerous, that has no right to be in our food. And here is where part of the problem lies, for all foods, every single last one of them, whether they are entirely products of chemical synthesis on the factory floor of some industrial complex or the most unadulterated product, grown in completely ‘organic’ soil and watered only with ‘pure’ mountain spring water are all made of chemicals. Below is a breakdown of all the chemicals contained in an entirely natural banana produced by James Kennedy, a science teacher from Australia. By the way, I highly recommend visiting his site for a breakdown of other natural foods, eggs, passionfruit, blueberries plus visual charts of E numbers, etc.

The ingredients of an all natural banana by James Kennedy
The ingredients of an all natural banana by James Kennedy

All those chemicals, with their chemical names, all occurring naturally! Now, if I were to give just the list of ingredients to the average person on the street, or even you, dear reader, and asked the question, “Would you eat this?” What would be the answer? In an entirely unscientific poll I asked 32 people and 25 of them said, no. When I asked why, their answers invariably had to do with the chemical looking nature of the ingredients.

What about those chemicals I listed at the top of the article? α-(5,6-dimethylbenzimidazolyl)cobamidcyanide is actually cobalamin.  (2S)-2-[(4-{[(2-amino-4-hydroxypteridin-6-yl)methyl]amino}phenyl)formamido]pentanedioic acid is more commonly called folate and (3β,5Z,7E)-9,10-secocholesta-5,7,10(19)-trien-3-ol is cholecalciferol. Still no better off? They are vitamins B12, B9 and D3, respectively. E100 is the new ‘superfood’ curcumin and E300 is vitamin C

I think these few examples alone go to show that just because something looks chemical, because, well that’s what it is, doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad at all.  But what about all those other chemicals? Those synthetic, unnatural, cancer causing ones?

The Dose Makes the Poison and Other Complications

The recent case involving Johnson and Johnson removing formaldehyde from their No More Tears baby shampoo highlights many points about the public perception of chemicals, which are not so much as summed up, but rather played out, in this New York Times article. Why am I using baby shampoo to highlight the issue of chemicals in our food? Bear with me.

Several times throughout the article formaldehyde is referred to as a carcinogen and ‘potentially harmful chemical’, which is not entirely wrong, but then again, is not entirely right, either.

Technically formaldehyde wasn’t even an ingredient, rather, it was given off by another ingredient slowly over time. Due to concerns about this the company decided to reformulate the shampoo, replacing the offending preservative.

The first thing to know about formaldehyde is that it’s a gas. Like oxygen and carbon dioxide. The second thing to note is that it is highly reactive, which is why it’s carcinogenic. It’s so reactive, in fact, that it doesn’t so much as dissolve in water as completely react with water to form a new substance known as methylene glycol.

In chemistry you have something known as dynamic equilibrium which means in a steady state, if a reaction is reversible, reactants are converted to products and products are converted to reactants at an equal and constant rate. This doesn’t mean that you have equal proportions of reactants, just that some flow back and forth is occurring. So there will always be some, though a very small amount, of formaldehyde gas given off. You can also tip the scale by heating the solution, for example, which will allow more formaldehyde gas to be given off.

Inhaled in high enough concentrations it has been found to cause certain types of nasal cancer and it can even be fatal, again in high enough concentrations.

Here’s the kicker though; formaldehyde is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere, in outer space, the upper atmosphere, in countless natural foods and is constantly being produced and degraded in every single cell of your entire body, every moment throughout the day, every day of your entire life. That’s right, it’s 100% natural.  It’s actually an essential metabolic intermediate of many biochemical processes in our body. We have enzymes that quickly render it into other forms.Technically speaking, though, it probably isn’t in the form of formaldehyde gas, but a formaldehyde ‘equivalent’ like methylene glycol.

The problem here is one of concentration, if the concentration is too great then it can overwhelm the body’s ability to eliminate it and that’s when it can cause problems. The article states that there is mounting evidence that cumulative exposure can be harmful. Though this can only be true at concentrations our bodies can’t handle, because it’s naturally broken down within the body, so if it’s below that level it gets no chance to accumulate precisely because it’s broken down. So what were the concentrations in the shampoo?The concentrations of formaldehyde in the Johnson and Johnson shampoo were so low that a single apple naturally contains the same amount of formaldehyde as 15 bottles of shampoo. Does that mean we should stop eating apples? Of course not!

Here’s an interesting list of the formaldehyde content of a number of foods

“Will a kid get cancer because there’s formaldehyde in their shampoo?” Ms. White asked. “We don’t know the answer to that. But why is there a carcinogen in their shampoo? When in doubt, take it out.”

This hits upon yet another issue that even many seasoned and able scientists get wrong. In science there is an idea known as the linear no-threshold concept which states there is no minimum safe dose of a toxin. It follows the idea that if something is toxic in large amounts, smaller amounts of that substance are still toxic but to a lesser extent, following a direct, linear response all the way down to undetectable levels. This idea, however is not supported by evidence, indeed there is a mass of evidence against it, yet scientists and the general public hold it to be true. In a previous post I wrote about hormesis and what’s known as a biphasic non-monotonic response, in which it is often the case that not only are small doses of a toxin not bad but they may be positively beneficial.

The ‘informed’ public

The company is responding, executives said, to a fundamental shift in consumer behavior, as an increasingly informed public demands that companies be more responsive to their concerns, especially when it comes to the ingredients in their products.

This could apply to almost any number of products from cleaning to cosmetics to food, but what exactly is meant by an ‘increasingly informed public’? Does listing the ingredients on a product help the public make informed choices? Staying with the example of formaldehyde. Run a search using just the word alone and you will come up with countless sites listing it as a dangerous chemical, a carcinogen, yet few of those sites actually explain the finer points, nor do they mention that it’s an entirely natural product produced by the human body and in our food. You might also see sites lamenting its presence in vaccines, but few sites mentioning that a single pear contains 60,000 times more formaldehyde than a vaccine shot.

More often than not it’s representatives from special interest groups that talk of letting the public make an informed choice, but to make an informed choice you really need to have a good handle on all the facts, which often takes both time and effort. The GM debate is a classic example, adding the ‘contains GM ingredients’, ‘no GM ingredients’ label simply tells you what is or isn’t in the particular food. If you don’t know about GM technology then this information is useless. If the vast amount of information comes from special interest groups, internet forums and is coupled with the sense that unnatural is somehow bad, can the public be considered truly informed?

The Times article, as with so many others, perhaps unwittingly only serves to reinforce the public’s negative opinion with its emotive negative language and constant references of carcinogens and potentially harmful chemicals.

So, you might say, what can be done? Perhaps the best answer is that there are no easy answers. We need to move away from generalizing about natural and unnatural chemicals and start looking with deeper care and attention at each individual substance before we start labelling. For sure there are a great many substances, both natural and synthetic, that will have negative and damaging effects on the body, but we shouldn’t tar others with the same brush without careful examination. After all, almost any substance can be harmful in sufficient doses, alcohol and even vitamins being prime examples.

To my mind the issue is akin to the notion that pervaded much of the 20th century about bacteria, how we must eliminate them at every turn. Bacteria were dirty disease carrying entities that we systematically tried to eliminate from our environment, and now, in the early part of the 21st century we find ourselves discovering (or perhaps rediscovering) that the microbiome, and the vast number of little critters that live in and on us are an integral part of our being and play a direct role in our health. And so it goes with chemicals. We are constantly discovering new chemicals with beneficial health effects as well as uncovering others that are detrimental to our health or the environment. In the same way, shunning ‘chemicals’ is a hopelessly absurd idea that leads us down a slippery slope. For, as one comment read on the article read

What about the safety of the compounds that are replacing these offenders? How certain are we that they are indeed harmless? Are we sure we are replacing a poison we know with one we don’t?

Further reading

European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety opinion on methylene glycol 2012 link
European Foods Standard Agency report on Endogenous formaldehyde turnover in humans compared with exogenous
contribution from food sources link
International Agency for Research on Cancer monograph on Formaldehyde link



Got a question or maybe something to add? Leave a comment and let me know!