It is one of the defining traits of our time. Self-proclaimed health gurus, clad in their social media prowess surround us – telling us what to do and how to eat in order to look like them. Attractive, that is, and healthy and free from any care in the world. And one of the mantras they repeat, echoing from Instagram page to Twitter feed, is to eat “chemical free”. That means, apparently, to eat organic, GMO-free, locally sourced food “without any chemicals” and “without any ingredients you can’t pronounce”.
Naturally,that kind of thinking betrays a complete misunderstanding of how chemistry works. Chemistry is the study of the matter that surrounds us and to that end chemists have cataloged every single type of matter of planet Earth. That means that by definition everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical and so is kale. In fact,the human body is made up by chemicals.Chemicals are what makes up Nature, which contradicts the popular notion that “natural” and “chemical” are somehow opposites. In this line of thought, all food is a chemical because all food is matter that exists on this earth.
Of course, that’s not the point. What “clean food” advocates are campaigning for is food that is free of all “complicated” chemicals – or “chemicals you can’t pronounce”. The issue with that idea is that chemists have made up a “technical” chemical name for everything on Earth. For example, water is dihydrogen monoxide since it’s made up of one atom of oxygen to two atoms of hydrogen. Sounds scary? That’s just because you don’t know what it is! A really great media-stunt/hoax highlighted the point that people will rally around their fear of the unknown by setting up a website calling for the regulation of dihydrogen monoxide. All this kind of stunt shows is that people are scared of what they don’t understand – and that they have been primed by the media to believe chemical-hazard horror stories.
Here is another example. Every morning, you probably end up consuming 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione. This is a highly complex chemical with two ring structures that is found through several processed products.
Chillingly, it is a psychoactive drug and a class 2B carcinogen. In spite of this, no government around the world seems to be particularly concerned with helping its citizens get rid of 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione from their food to look after their own health and the healthy of their families.
Because it’s caffeine.
(And for the record, a class 2B carcinogen is something for which there is limited evidence that it might, in some circumstances and in high doses, cause cancers in humans).
If there was ever a good argument for teaching chemistry in high schools, this is it. Ignorance is a tool anyone can use to scare people, and to cajole them into buying whatever so-called natural snake oil they are currently peddling.