Everything else is just a chemical

Chemical is NOT a four-letter word! Chemicals can be toxic, but we can’t survive without chemicals like protein, vitamins, minerals, oxygen and water. Somehow, we have become a society that is terrorized by the thought of chemicals in our lives. Here are just a few examples from my life.

“When I have a wound, I rub it with Vitamin E, and it heals up quickly. Everything else you can use is just a chemical.” I was waiting in line to pick up my prescription and heard the pharmacy tech advising the customer in front of me in the presence of the pharmacist. While the pharm tech was retrieving my meds, I explained that tocopherols were chemicals with Vitamin E activity. It was like a light bulb went on in her brain as she seemed to connect something she had learned in class with real life! The last place I expected to hear that everything else was chemical was in a drug store from someone who had apparently had a few courses in applied chemistry to be qualified for the position. I could only shake my head as I walked back to the front of the store among rows of bottles and boxes filled with chemicals.

α-tocopherol, the most prevalent and important form of Vitamin E

“All that’s left are just chemicals,” uttered by a staffer holding a can of caffeine-free, sugar-free cola during the break at a meeting of the University Admissions Committee. I suspect that he had graduated with a liberal arts degree, but he should have known that caffeine is a chemical. I’ll give him a pass on the molecular nature of sugar. The most prevalent chemical in all sodas is, of course, dihydrogen oxide more commonly known as water. Any ingredient that is unfamiliar in any food or beverage product is generally considered to be a chemical and suspect. Familiar ingredients are generally thought not to be chemicals and thus safe.


“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup.” This advice comes directly from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and is expanded upon in Food Rules. This sentiment has been communicated many times. Do we really want to use the ability to pronounce a word as a discriminatory tool? I help a fourth grader with his reading in a local after-school program. When we come to a word that is hard for him to pronounce, I don’t tell him to ignore it. I try to walk him through it and help him link it up if it is an unfamiliar word to him. For example, this past week we came across the appendix at the end of the book. He knew about the body organ, but now he also knows that a book can have an appendix too! Are we to reject unpronounceable words, refuse to eat unpronounceable foreign dishes, or not associate with people whose names are unpronounceable? Basically, Pollan is telling us to avoid unfamiliar chemical ingredients. Does this ploy foster understanding or ignorance?


“No funky stuff” is Otis Spunkmeyer’s pledge to its consumers. Maybe this is a step in the right direction—common-sense labels rather than clean labels. Maybe it is just another way of making us feel better about our guilty pleasures. Is a highly sugared cookie a healthier alternative if it is full of invert sugar than full of high-fructose corn syrup? Or are they both junk foods with too much sugar, all right for an occasional snack but not a good idea as a permanent fixture in an otherwise healthy diet? Now that we no longer have partially-hydrogenated oils in our packaged products, are palm oils with saturated fats going to prevent thousands of heart attacks and lives as we were promised when we abandoned trans fats? Probably not. Can we have our cookies and eat them too? Perception is a funny thing. Are all chemicals funky? Do we really need to get rid of as many as we can?

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“An hour of ‘chemical-free horticultural hijinks’” comes our way every week on You Bet Your Garden on selected NPR radio stations. My kitchen radio, which is permanently tuned to NPR, broadcasts this nonsense. I do NOT object to organic gardening. What I object to is chemical ignorance. How can any plants in a garden grow without water, one of the few chemicals on earth present in solid, liquid and gaseous forms? How fertile is soil deficient in the elements nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous? Where does the chemical chlorophyll come from if not from chemical synthesis within a green plant? What miracle needs to take place for a plant to take in carbon dioxide from the air to form stems, leaves, roots, fruits and vegetables except through a rather complex series of chemical reactions? The miracle of plant life is the miracle of carefully choreographed biochemistry.


“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan greets us with these seven words at the beginning of In Defense of Food. With a basic understanding of the principles of nutrition, a person can consume a very healthy diet around Pollan’s admonition. Without such an understanding, one can consume a highly restrictive diet that is likely to have long-term, negative consequences for health. Providing useful dietary advice is difficult and is not likely to be summed up in just a few words. Two weeks ago on this site, a nutritionist who teaches an advanced nutrition course pointed out many of the pitfalls of modern dietary advice. I was pleased with her analysis until the last paragraph where she gave a slightly longer version of Pollan’s mantra. She seemed to suggest that we may be in a paradigm shift and we need to wait until nutritional science sorts itself out. I reject this perspective. Last week I responded with a defense of nutrients. Yes, we need to be open to new ideas and different thought, but the concept of nutritionism appears to be an outright rejection of the basic principles of nutrtion.

Everything we put into our mouths is chemical. Once it leaves the mouth and proceeds down our gullet all that matters are the chemical interactions of the components of that mass, formerly known as food, with the chemicals and microbes in our bodies. Until we acknowledge that (1) not all chemicals are bad, (2) water is a chemical, and (3) we are dependent on chemical nutrients for life, we are prone to fall for magic formulas to healthy living that appear online and in popular books.

Heads up: There is a great website that I just discovered about flavors of the diaspora on “assorted tastes of the Jewish experience.” Check it out.

Also, look for information on the 7,200 year history of processed foods from Rachel Laudan.

Next week: The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully

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