argumate:

you: eww, I don’t want chemicals in my food!

an intellectual: everything you eat is made of chemicals.

another intellectual: “chemicals” as used in colloquial speech typically refers to isolated compounds created by industrial processes that are not commonly found in the natural environment, some of which we know are toxic to humans and have been banned for use in food production and some of which we still use but suspect are not conducive to good health.

I’ve wanted to do a short post on this for ages so I guess now’s the time:

At the micro level, one ascorbic acid molecule from an orange is functionally identical to one ascorbic acid molecule created through the Reichstein process.

But at the macro level, there are significant differences between two compounds with the same chemical name if one is found in wild fruit and the other is created in an industrial process.

First – have we found all the vitamins yet? If you eat wild berries, you get vitamin C and you get whatever other compounds our ancestors adapted to get with their vitamin – but if you just take a vitamin pill, you get exactly the vitamins we have put in, nothing else. This is a problem with e.g. Iron –

if you take iron pills, your body absorbs some of the iron, but there are foods you cannot take the pills with, and other foods you can eat with the iron to absorb more of it.

Whereas if you eat meat like our ancestors did, you get the iron in exactly the form our ancestors did, and your body absorbs as much as is needed. 

Second – except “

you get exactly the vitamins we have put in, nothing else” is not true either. You get the vitamins we put in, and the industrial byproducts of the production. This is also true if you eat a berry, but those are side products our ancestors adapted to. Industrial processing byproducts can be novel chemical structures that our bodies aren’t capable of handling. This is not due to sloppiness or some inherent villainy found in processing plants – I used to work in the pharmaceutical business and we tried damn hard to ensure the purity of our product but the fact of the matter is that you cannot clean something to 100% purity. You can get 90% easy. 99% is not hard. 99.9% is possible. For pharmaceuticals, here’s the ICH guidelines:

identification of impurities below 0.1% level is not considered to be necessary, unless potential impurities are expected to be unusually potent or toxic. According to the ICH, the maximum daily dose qualification threshold to be considered is as follows; <2 g / day, 0.1 % or 1 mg per day intake (whichever is lower) >2 g / day, 0.05%.

 – Bari SB, Kadam BR, Jaiswal YS. Impurity profile: Significance in Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient. Eurasian J Anal Chem. 2007;2:1.

So that’s respectively 99.9% or 99.95% – impressively well isolated, but you’d be a liar if you said it was completely pure.

Now I am no luddite – I appreciate the future. I drink soda made from industrial chemicals, and I drink it from soft plastic bottles created in industrial processes. My goal here is not to make you scared of some unspecified dangers.

Rather, my goal is simply this: When somebody says “it has chemicals in it,” don’t respond with “everything has chemicals” because while that is true, it does not answer the underlying worry – pure apple juice has chemicals your body evolved to handle. A flavored apple product has chemicals with novel properties we do not fully understand.

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