What do you think of when you hear the word “chemical”? Does it elicit a certain type of response? Does it have a positive or negative connotation? If you’re a chemistry major, the word “chemical” may have a very positive connotation; it is what you study and chances are, you like what you study. However, if you’re a nutritionist, the word “chemical” may be the equivalent of a dirty word in your vocabulary. When it comes to food, chemicals have no place in the ingredients list. Right?
Wrong! What we forget is that all food is, in essence, chemicals. That is to say: chemicals compose the base of everything we consume. Protein is composed of amino acids (of which there are 22 different molecular structures, linked and arranged to make up what we call protein). Carbohydrates are composed of a variety of different complex molecules — glucose, fructose, maltose, etc. — which all share the elements carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Fats are composed of long hydrocarbon chains. These are all chemicals; so why are “chemicals” so taboo in nutrition lingo?
Here’s a brief example: tartrazine. Or, better known as Yellow No. 5 on your Kraft Mac’N’Cheese ingredients label. Tartrazine, along with many other food dyes, has been associated with hyperactivity in children and cancer in lab animals. Besides Kraft products, it is also found in candy, beverages, and baked goods, in addition to some cosmetics as a colorant.
Let’s move on to a few more: butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), propyl gallate, and triacetin (glycerol triacetate). All are found in chewing gum, a staple in the average college lifestyle, especially when trying to focus on homework. But these chemicals are a reason to consider giving up that gum habit. In addition to gum, BHA is used in rubber and petroleum products and is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Institute of Health. Propyl gallate is generally combined with BHA to act as a preservative, and has shown evidence of acting as an “endocrine disruptor” which affects human hormones. Finally, glycerol triacetate is a plasticizer for chewing gum and other gummy candies. It works to keep food from drying out, and has been recognized as safe by the FDA as a food additive. But it is also found in perfume, cosmetics, and cigarette filters.
The chemicals that we hear about on a daily basis are generally synthetic chemicals: things that are added to a natural product to make them taste a certain way, make them a certain color, or have a longer shelf life. But what about added chemicals that are not synthesized in a lab? Can they still be dangerous? Sodium nitrate is one of these.
Sodium nitrate is used in the preservation and cooking of meats like bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meat, and smoked fish. It produces the red color that we see when we purchase the meats; otherwise, they would look gray rather than red or reddish brown. Sodium nitrate is found naturally in many vegetables — beets, celery, radishes, lettuce, to name a few — but there is a catch when this compound is found in vegetables. Vegetables also contain ascorbic acid, so when we eat vegetables with sodium nitrate, the ascorbic acid acts to prevent our bodies from metabolizing the nitrate into nitrosamines. These nitrosamine products are considered carcinogenic, so to combat this issue, some meat companies are also adding ascorbic acid to their meat.
Preservatives, pesticides, additives … all bad words in nutrition lingo. Some of the examples above are bad chemicals in food. But not all difficult-to-pronounce words on a food’s ingredient list is going to be bad for you. For example, the ascorbic acid we discussed earlier? That’s just another name for Vitamin C. Or what about these chemical names: dextrin, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltodextrin, maltol, maltose, mannose, muscovado, panocha, saccharose, and sucrose? These are all names of the same thing: sugar. Another example of a difficult-to-pronounce ingredient as something less harmful than we make it out to be is cobalamin. What is cobalamin? Vitamin B12, something we all need. And, of course, my personal favorite chemical additive: dihydrogen monoxide. What is this deadly-sounding chemical? H2O, which is also commonly known as water.
The most important takeaway is that not every perceived “chemical” on your food’s list of ingredients is necessarily going to be bad for you. Yes, some food companies out there are intentionally putting not-so-healthy additives in their food for economic purposes. But for the most part, companies are not “out to get you.” They are making sure their products are going to nourish their customers. If you’re really worried, do your research and find out for yourself what’s good and what’s bad. You might be surprised at what you find, and rethink some of your previously negative chemical misconceptions.