Chemicals in Food: Who cares about Science?

Amy Hawthorne

by Amy Hawthorne

22nd May 2014

“Get healthy. Get clean. Go Chemical-Free today!” is the advice radiated from, anon-profit organisation dedicated to scientific research”. We have to question the source of the research that claims there is even such a thing as going “chemical-free”. Cue eye-roll.

But who listens to scientists anyway? Not Food Babe in her attempt to tear apart the ingredients in Taco Bell products. Despite telling us that “A chemist from Duke University said ‘There’s nothing on this list I have a problem eating.” The Food Babe goes on to question ingredients because they “have some pretty weird names”.

A tip from Food Babe: “Next time you see your family or friends eating the popular products [with cellulose] discussed in this video – ask them: Do you eat wood?” Cellulose is actually found in the cellular structure of almost all plant matter and provides fibre for our diets, and your relatives will probably give you funny looks if you pose that question.

Even odder, is GeekoSystem telling us we were actually eating yoga mats when we ate sandwiches from Subway; “The quest to remove the yoga mats from our bread was first organised by food blogger Vani Hari.” and a tweet from Chobani yoghurt company contradictorily stating “We’re not anti-science in any regard. We just wanted to state that our product is free from chemicals & unnatural food.”

This post aims to combat the common mis-conceptions circulating the media about chemicals in food. Just like the myths of chemicals in cosmetics, scaremongering techniques are causing members of the public to believe they are victims in a non-regulated environment and are ingesting ingredients on a daily basis that are guaranteed to give them cancer. 

The Dangers of Scare Tactics

Scary-sounding chemicals in an apple. Image by IFL Science

Scary-sounding chemicals in an apple. Image by IFL Science

The issue with the above questionable quotations about chemicals in food is that most of them are not backed up by science. Campaigners use emotive language to get people to side with their cause, and are causing such a storm due to the high volumes of people that have been moved to get on board and spread the word about toxic chemicals in food.

One effective technique of scaremongering is using children as bait. Telling parents that they’re feeding their child unregulated deadly chemicals never fails to gain traction.

A lot of food companies making profits by only selling “natural” or “organic” products market their brand by claiming that they never use ingredients that children can’t pronounce. This fear of complicated chemical names is dangerous; it’s teaching the wrong information and contributing to ignorance towards chemistry.

Some people fit long chemical names into their pre-existing and ever-static schema of dangerous toxins. This blog points out that dihydrogen monoxide makes up 75% of us, so it’s important that we’re not quick to judge complicated chemical names.

Another misplaced fear is that all chemicals are toxic and manmade. In fact, chemicals occur in nature as well and toxic chemicals even appear in products like apples, pears and potatoes.  The reason we don’t get sick is the quantities of chemicals are far below harmful levels. This is nicely put by Sense about Science; “The presence of a chemical isn’t a reason for alarm. The effect of a chemical depends on the dose.” (This is true for products that contain both natural and manmade chemicals.)

Telling parents that they’re feeding their child unregulated deadly chemicals never fails to gain traction.

Sodium hydrogen sulphate cleans toilet bowls, but it also combines with baking soda to make bread rise. Not quite a good enough reason to cut out bread from your diet, as most chemicals are multi-taskers and are present in more than one product, yet comparing uses for chemicals is unfortunately a tactic that bloggers are adopting in their approach to inject fear into the public.

False information about chemicals is not only affecting knowledge and education, but also health. It is claimed that mercury found in fish is “one of the worst chemicals in food”. However, our bodies are able to combat the small levels of mercury due to the effects of selenium – a fact that’s often conveniently omitted by the anti-mercury brigade – and the majority of fish we consume contains much higher levels of selenium than mercury.

How selenium protects against mercury

Eliminating fish from your diet could be doing more harm than good. Fish is needed as part of a balanced diet and is a good source of protein. It also goes well with sweet chilli sauce.

Image by Compound Chem on behalf of Sense about Science

Image by Compound Chem on behalf of Sense about Science

Food Companies Succumb to Pressure

The huge movement against the food industry has been seeing some significant results recently. Major food companies are making changes to their recipes. Not because they are piling chemicals in dangerous amounts to their food, but to minimise the growing paranoia of consumers and protect their reputation.

A highly publicised case is the removal of the flour additive, azodicarbonamide, labelled the “yoga mat chemical” from Subway bread.

Azodicarbonamide is a source of nitrogen which creates pockets of air in plastic foams (perfect for the supportive sponginess you need for ‘downward dog’) but is also an additive in flour that can be used as an oxidising agent that allows protein molecules to link together to form gluten (perfect for that soft, bouncy texture of bread to wrap your Meatball Marinara in).

It’s also a Food & Drugs Administration-approved food additive. This chemical is only dangerous in doses higher than would be used in baked goods, so all that shouting at Subway was for nothing.

 Major food companies are making changes to their recipes… to minimise the growing paranoia of consumers and protect their reputation.

Food Babe campaigner, Vani Hari, attempted to expose Taco Bell for their ingredients, resulting in Taco Bell opting to reveal the full list of their ingredients so consumers could know exactly what’s in the products.

Food Babe has no Food Science degrees or related qualifications and her website is full of sweeping, un-investigated claims. Though, she is “most knowledgeable about harmful ingredients in processed foods”, so we should all listen to her, shouldn’t we?

Scary GMO’s – Genetically Modified Organisms

Should food be genetically modified to change its characteristics?

Should food be genetically modified to change its characteristics?

A current food debate involves GMO’s; should food be genetically modified by chemicals to change its characteristics?

Campaigners urge us to eat only “organic” food, under the assumption that organic food will not be tampered with or treated in the same way as “non-organic”.

Elle magazine claims that “non-organic veggies are often laden with residue from weed-killer.”  However, generally companies just label their products as “organic” to justify a price increase, when an organic and a non-organic carrot are actually both treated with chemicals. They have to be. One example of a chemical used is calcium chloride, which is needed as it delays the aging and decay of food and increases Vitamin C content.

Again, there’s not a lot of research to support the panic around GMOs. In fact, scientific evidence based on hundreds of independent studies not funded by the food industry, suggests that crop improvement by genetic engineering is safe and furthermore, that chemicals and radiation actually enhance the nutritional value of foods.

Despite the evidence to say that genetic engineering is safe, a poll found that 93% of Americans want GMO’s labelled; a statistic reflecting the overbearing influence had by bloggers and campaigners with no science degrees.

I can’t help but be slightly impressed by the changes that have been made to the food industry, on the basis of rumours and not scientific evidence. 

Tell us your thoughts on the topic of chemicals in food. Should stricter regulations be put in place? What ingredients are the most dangerous? Should issues such as Chemophobia be taught in school, to stop the irrational fear spreading? 


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