Man-manipulated chemicals in our foods

Bioactive compounds are ones that interact chemically with our bodies. Two such bioactive ingredients that are manipulated by humans and featured in Badditives are high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. Corn syrup which is almost all glucose is converted to high fructose corn syrup by adding an enzyme to change over half of that glucose to fructose. Hydrogenation adds hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them more useful  ingredients in food products. Bioactive compounds can be artificial or natural and beneficial or detrimental. Even the lines between these distinctions can be blurred however. Does a synthetic version of a bioactive chemical with an identical structure affect our bodies any differently than its natural version? Can our bodies tell a difference? There are arguments on both sides. Likewise, what about a chemical that is inactive at low levels, beneficial at higher levels and detrimental at even higher ones. Should such a compound be considered a goodditive or a badditive? In addition to discussing high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils, I will place two very popular bioactive chemicals—caffeine and ethanol–in a similar context.


Reducing sugars such as fructose and glucose are bioactive. Fructose (chemical structure shown above) has been described as the most serious challenge to the health of Americans in one popular (The Case Against Sugar) and one scientific (The Maillard Reaction Reconsidered) book, both of which have been discussed on this blogsite. Sugar appears to be the new fat, and fructose is described as the worst sugar to consume. I am not yet convinced of the case against sugar. If fructose is that dangerous, then how can a chemical with the above structure be bad for us when in soda or other processed foods and OK when found in agave syrup, fruit, honey or maple syrup? A recent article on NPR’s site on foods suggests that the sugar in fruit is different from the sugar in candy and other processed foods. The article differentiates the two types of sugars by context—we are less likely to consume excess sugar in a single fruit, the fiber present lowers the sugar spike, and we get vitamins with the fruit. Does this mean that fructose is good for us when in a piece of fruit or only less bad for us? The article does caution against dried fruit and fruit juices which do not provide that context.

trans fatty acid

Partially hydrogenated oils were developed over 100 years ago, but did not become widespread as food ingredients until after World War II. Above is the structure of one of those notorious trans fatty acids. Note the dash in the middle of the molecule. That represents a double bond. Each point on the chain represents a carbon atom. On each side of the double bond the carbon atom has only one hydrogen atom instead of two hydrogen atoms on the other carbons in the chain. On a trans fatty acid the hydrogen atoms are positioned on opposite sides of the double bond leading to the straight configuration shown above. In a cis fatty acid the hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond leading to a kink in the chain.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in vegetable oils and exhibit two or more double bonds in their chains. The problem with vegetable oils like olive oil is that they are liquid at room temperature instead of the more solid highly saturated fats such as butter. In baking and other types of cooking, oils are too liquid and fats too solid to produce the quality that most consumers desire. Hydrogenation adds hydrogen to decrease the number of double bonds in an oil to making them less liquid than typical vegetable oil but not as solid as butter. Nature produces almost exclusively cis fatty acids. The problem with hydrogenation is that the process partially reverses itself. When some of the double bonds reappear, half of them are trans and the other half are cis.

The prime advocate of removing partially hydrogenated oils as ingredients and thus most trans fatty acids from food products is Walter Willet the author of Eat, Drink and be Healthy. Thanks to his research and the movement to ban trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils will be phased out as an ingredient in processed foods next year. Willet is the most cited person when it comes to the dangers of trans fats. What pundits who point to his work fail to disclose, however, is that he considers trans fats to be only twice as dangerous as saturated fats. Yet many who blame trans fats in processed food for poor heart health in America advocate greater consumption of saturated fats. Fortunately, they will get their wish as food manufacturers are substituting saturated fats for trans fats in their products. Healthier? Maybe a little, but probably not as much as we want to believe.


Caffeine, shown above, has a scientific name of trimethylpurine dione and is one of the most widely consumed bioactive compounds in the world. Most of us are not put off by caffeine, but many of us would be worried about ingesting trimethylpurine dione. That is one scary name. On the plus side, trimethylpurine dione can help us concentrate, maintain alertness, and keep us awake to study for that big test or that late night ride home. It has been linked to decreasing our susceptibility to some cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, headaches and even dementia. On the minus side, caffeine has been linked to increased anxiety, birth defects, calcium depletion leading to osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Taking the positive and negative aspects into consideration, WebMD encourages moderate consumption of trimethylpurine dione to obtain many of the pluses with few of the minuses. Too much caffeine, however, is probably not a good idea.


Another widely consumed bioactive chemical that many of us consume is ethanol (shown above) or the key compound in alcoholic beverages. This innocuous looking molecule has a very simple structure, but it is probably the chemical responsible for more deaths, injuries, and broken homes than any other on the planet. The Food Babe is very concerned about the additives in beer such as high fructose corn syrup while she ignores the clear toxin (it is not called intoxication for nothing) present, ethanol. On the plus side, moderate consumption of alcohol has been associated with protection against some cancers, heart disease and even dementia. On the minus side, ethanol can lead to alcoholism, drunk driving and the associated deaths, liver disease and a host of other diseases and disorders. Many physicians recommend moderate consumption of red wine or other alcoholic beverages, but for an alcoholic any consumption of alcohol can have serious consequences.

This week’s post is a plea to the public to evaluate chemicals added to food as well as those present naturally in their overall context. Ethanol is probably the most pleasurable and most dangerous chemical discussed in this post. We must get away from condemning substances because they sound like chemicals while accepting others just because they are familiar to us. For example, trimethylpurine dione may not be as dangerous as it sounds while caffeine may not be as innocuous as its name. I for one will not mourn the loss of partially hydrogenated oils in our food supply. Incorporating them into processed foods was not a good idea.  If sugar is as dangerous as some pundits proclaim, however, fructose is at the top of the list as far as prime suspects. More research needs to be done on its potential dangers, but if we are going to cut out fructose, then we must also eliminate honey, maple syrup, and almost all added sugars. Even fruit sugar will become suspect. It could mean the end of almost all sweets unless we embrace artificial sweeteners.

In the context of full disclosure, I consume very few foods that contain high fructose corn syrup because I carefully watch my sugar intake including that from fruit. I no longer look at labels for trans fats because they are rapidly disappearing from processed foods. I drink one cup of decaf coffee every morning but do get my trimethylpurine dione in the two or three diet drinks I consume daily. In a typical week, I have two generous glasses of red wine, a can or bottle of beer and an occasional mixed drink with my meals. I never consume more than a single drink in a day and most of my drinking is at home to avoid driving under the influence. My habits are not based on scare tactics. Rather they are based on a balanced view of the available information.

Next week: Artificial colors and antioxidants in our food

Special thanks to Dr. Ron Pegg for the chemical structures

Books referenced in this post (click on image for order information):


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