Should You Be Afraid of Chemicals in Your Food? (And Who’s Profiting From Your Fear)

Does the thought of seemingly omnipresent chemicals make you cringe?

If so, you’re not alone. One survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) states that more people fear ‘chemicals’ in food than food-borne pathogens, like salmonella or ecoli!

Consumer’s growing fears about chemicals—coined ‘chemophobia’—are shaping what many shoppers purchase. We’ve previously covered chemophobia in the beauty aisle, but these fears aren’t limited to cosmetics.

However, since shoppers are reaching for products labeled ‘green’ or ‘all-natural’ down near almost every aisle of the store, it’s almost impossible to assuage fears on a product-by-product (or ingredient-by-ingredient) basis—attempting to do so is like playing whack-a-mole with a toothpick on the Great Plains.

Should we be afraid of chemicals in our food? Instead, of picking apart individual products, we’ll take a look at some common chemophobic fears, including whether or not:

  • “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” is a meaningful tactic
  • Synthetic chemicals worse than natural ones
  • There are dangerous poisons in store-bought meat

And, if the answer is no, we have to ask—who’s benefiting from the ongoing questioning of one ingredient’s healthfulness over another? Before we get there, let’s look at why we’re geared to be fearful of chemicals in the first place.

EggImage via Wonder How To

Should You Be Afraid of Chemicals in Your Food?

Your ancestors were wary of certain foods—a fact you can be sure of because you’re alive today. Back when we were ambling around attempting to avoid poisoned berries and spoiled meat, spotting foods that could potentially make you sick was a pretty good skill.

But, in an era when we can depend on “best enjoyed by” dates instead of our sense of smell, being wary of what’s inside foods has taken a less-helpful turn. Consider if you’ve ever made any of the following statements:

  • “We don’t allow food with added chemicals in our house.”
  • “I only eat organic food because there aren’t any chemicals added.”
  • “I need to go on a detoxifying cleanse to get rid of the toxins in my body.”

If those sound familiar, you’re not alone: A growing number of consumers are fearful of chemicals in their food. But, is it rational?

Are Ingredients You Can’t Pronounce Automatically Bad For You?

Tara Magalski, (a self-described holistic health counselor), has repeatedly promoted the idea that if she can’t pronounce something, she won’t eat it.

Though Tara isn’t the first, the cautionary maxim “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” became popular thanks to food writer and activist Michael Pollan. In an NPR story from 2008, he wrote it as an easy to remember phrase: “Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce.”

Since then, popular alternative medicine websites and food activists like the Food Babe have run with this simplistic notion, turning it into a virtual crusade against anything that sounds like it might be harmful, artificial or created by a corporation.

While fun to say, the sentiment boils down to a few ideas that, when boiled down, stop sounding all that smart:

  • Chemicals = big words
  • Big words = bad for you
  • Simple = good for you

Essentially, it’s promoting the perspective that, if you eat simple things, you’re healthy. If you eat things with hard-to-pronounce ingredients in it, you’re going to become fat, get sick, and probably die early.

Here are two problems with “If I can’t pronounce it, I won’t eat it”:  First, it celebrates not knowing something. After all, it’s not that difficult to break big words into syllables and sound them out. (Should your child avoid geometry because they can’t pronounce ‘Pythagorean theorem’?)

Next, keeping with this mindset eliminates all kinds of really-good-for-you foods like fruits and eggs!

For example, check out these informative posters that show how common fruits would have to be labeled if they were regulated as manufactured foods:

Ingredients in natural fruits poster

The above images were created by James Kennedy, a high school chemistry teacher in Australia, as a visual introduction to an organic chemistry course to demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms, and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything scientists can produce in a lab.

What About Synthetic Chemicals In Food?

Now that we can (hopefully) agree that the whole pronunciation thing is silly, let’s move on to a more pressing concern: synthetic or “unnatural” chemicals in food.

According to the above video by ASAPScience, the issue isn’t as simple as natural versus man-made. While some synthetic compounds aren’t safe, “the dose makes the poison.”

What does that mean? For example, the video compares an apple (natural) with sodium thiopental, the chemical used in lethal injections (man-made). The amygdalin in apple seeds has roughly the same toxicity level as sodium thiopental—they both become lethal at around 1000 milligrams per kilogram of your body weight.

Of course, you’d have to eat a lot of apple seeds to reach a lethal dose! Which is exactly what the phrase “the dose makes the poison” is meant to illustrate.

Apples aren’t the only thing in your kitchen harboring potentially lethal chemicals, either. Want to take down a 165-pound person? Just consume the following:

  • Six liters of water at one time
  • 118 Cups of coffee
  • 29 Shots of vodka

All chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are toxic if consumed in a high enough dose. Again, it’s unlikely that you could force yourself to consume that much of any of the above substances, so you’re probably not worried.

The thing is, many of the complicated-sounding chemicals and preservatives in food also require you to ingest immense amounts before they become dangerous.

According to James Kennedy, labeling an ingredient as “natural” or “synthetic” tells us only about where it comes from. But it doesn’t provide any information about the ingredient’s function, chemical structure, or whether or not it’s toxic.

Should You Be Worried About Arsenic In Your Chicken?

Synthetic compounds in processed foods are one concern, but what about chemical contamination?

In 2012, The NY Times ran an article asking just that question. The writer cited two different studies which suggested that poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics, and even arsenic.

Despite quoting one of the researchers as saying, “We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern,” the article goes on to infer that the chicken you can buy at the store isn’t safe, and you’re better off at least reaching for organic.

However, an article on Just Like Cooking puts the danger into perspective:

“Glancing quickly at both journals' major tables, it's clear we're talking small amounts here: parts per billion (ppb). To put this in perspective, let's imagine we had a swimming pool, which we filled with 1000 L (~270 gallons) of water, which will weigh 1000 kg (density of water = 1 g / mL @ room temp).

“Now, what's a ppb for this scale? One milligram of material, or about what you'd add if a snowflake fell into your pool.”

In short, you’d have to eat two pounds of chicken feathers to ingest enough the same amount of arsenic that proves fatal for a lab mouse.

Should you be worried? According to Just Like Cooking, infinitesimally tiny amounts of several “bad” substances float by you every day, but you don't often see people dropping dead. Again, the dose makes the poison.

How Being Scared of Chemicals In Your Food Leaves You Vulnerable to Scams

Hopefully, by now we’ve debunked the ideas that you don’t have to pronounce everything that you eat, and that synthetic doesn’t always mean bad. However, even if you can avoid simple black and white thinking when it comes to the chemicals in your food, there’s still a lot of confusion about what’s healthy to eat.

In fact, if you asked most people about foods that are “good” or “bad” for you, you'd get a bunch of different answers.

Ask a dozen people about their opinions on food and you’ll find those who vehemently argue that eggs are both good or bad for you, that sodium does and doesn't contribute to hypertension, or that carbs do or don't make you sick.

When your average consumer has such a difficult time discerning truth in the mixed messages of what foods to choose and which to avoid, it creates an opportunity for so-called experts to swoop in and save the day—for a price, of course.

Believe that the government and big corporations are poisoning your food with toxins? Just buy a juice-based cleanse to rinse the toxins out! Not getting enough vegetables? There are vitamins and supplements sold for that, too.

Related: Warning: Colon Cleanse & Detoxification Supplements May Not Be What They Seem

Even if you don’t buy into diet or nutritional plans, believing scare stories could lead you to limit your shopping list in a way that avoids perfectly healthy foods, unnecessarily restrict your diet, or is select more expensive alternatives.

No matter how companies “clean up” their formulas in an effort to improve consumer’s perception of their products, our readiness to accept insinuations of bad-for-you ingredients means that their competition can easily get a leg up by posing questions of who is more natural or transparent.

Be Wary of Trends Demonizing Certain Chemicals, Foods, or Ingredients

As we mentioned up top, humans have inherent emotions of disgust. An adaptation which, in part, likely evolved to help us avoid contaminated or spoiled food.

In our modern society, this reflex can be tricky. We don’t always have control over the chain of events that leads to food on our plates. Other people grow the food, transport it, process it, and perhaps even cook it.

Modern food technology can also involve many scary sounding substances, complex chemicals, and unusual processes that can make the average consumer uncomfortable. As the saying goes, you may not want to know how the sausage is made, as long as the result is wholesome and delicious.

But information in the wrong context can be just as dangerous to your diet.

Along with our increasingly complex food processes comes the technology to increase transparency. This can ultimately be a good thing, informing consumers about shady practices and helping them to make better choices.

However, to use the analogy above, if you’re going to inspect the process of making sausage, then you need to know something about sausage-making.

See Also: Greenwashing: How Cosmetics Convince You That They’re Natural

Bottom Line? Scrutinize Your Experts Like You Would an Ingredients Label

Consumers are getting a great deal of information about food, food ingredients, and manufacturing processes, which is a good thing. However, some of this information is coming from dubious sources who hope to profit off of your fear.

It isn’t easy to understand any complex science, including chemistry and food science, which includes medical studies on ingredient safety. 

In writing Is That Going to Kill You? Why Our Fear of Chemicals In Cosmetics Is Unfounded, the first in our two-part look at chemophobia, we shared four points that may make you reconsider reaching for products that are marketed as natural:

  1. “All-natural,” “green,” and “non-toxic” (amongst others) aren’t regulated and have little meaning when it comes to ingredients.
  2. Safer-sounding plant-based ingredients are both chemicals unto themselves, and can cause allergic reactions.
  3. Synthetic compounds have proved effective and safe.
  4. The concentration of any ingredient, even those that are “good” or “bad,” is just as important to measuring its safety as the ingredient itself. (The dose makes the poison!)

Those same points apply to to discerning the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ chemicals in what you eat. However, experts (even if self-proclaimed) like Tara Magalski and Dr. Oz have essentially made careers out of provoking irrational fears of ingredients with unsavory sources and with scary-sounding, long chemical names.

Neither of these factors has anything to do with actual food safety, but they make it easy to scare the non-expert.

The reality is that what’s good for you is too complex to be divvied up into naughty and nice. And, those creating the hype? Before letting any source whip you into a frenzy over individual ingredients or chemicals, take a step back to examine whether or not they’re promoting education or their own agenda.

More on Healthy Eating:

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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