Eating Chemicals?

This morning I woke to find that a few of my Facebook friends had posted this article in response to a Buzzfeed list concerning food additives/chemicals that are banned in other countries but not in the US. If you don’t want to follow the links, the short version is that Buzzfeed made a list more based in people’s fears and misunderstandings concerning chemistry than in science and The Guardian responded with a sarcastic article arguing that we should ban things such as table salt (and linked to a less sarcastic article about why Buzzfeed is wrong).

I think it’s important to point this out because I often see people online arguing that to eat healthy, one shouldn’t eat anything with “chemicals” in it or that we shouldn’t eat things that we cannot pronounce the names of. There are a few problems with this philosophy as well as with other closely related philosophies, such as the philosophy that things that are “natural” or “organic” are healthier.

I’m not a natural scientist by any means, but from what I understand, the first one, the one being largely discussed by the articles – not eating chemicals –  is impossible. I mean, how would we live without breathing air and drinking water? I know that some would say here that I am missing the point, as what they mean is that we shouldn’t eat any chemicals that are made in a lab, not that we shouldn’t eat naturally occurring ones, but I would argue that what one should really be doing is assessing the harm/benefit of anything that one is putting into his or her body. After all, there are things that one might find in nature that would be harmful/poisonous, and things that are added by humans that are helpful (i.e. adding things like iodine to salt). I’m not saying one should not be discerning when deciding what to put into his or her body – I am saying that a blanket statement such as “don’t eat chemicals” is an arbitrary rule at best and possibly makes no sense. For example, I would be ok with a person who decided not to eat an artificial sweetener because they had done a lot of research and decided that this was not a thing they wanted to put into their body, but would pressure someone who doesn’t eat them “because they are a chemical” to think more about their viewpoint (if you are curious, I did a project about aspartame in high school and decided that I think it is safe enough to eat; I avoid stevia/truvia/whatevervia because I have heard that some research has said it could be harmful even though it is naturally occurring, but would change my view if future research proved this to be incorrect).

The second point, that one should not eat something just because they cannot pronounce the name of the ingredients, is equally arbitrary. If water were listed out as “di-hydrogen mono-oxide” (sorry if that is somewhat incorrect, I haven’t taken chemistry in years), many people might be unable to pronounce it, but a diet without water would literally kill you (and it would probably be impossible to avoid). Some things that are bad for you might be easy to pronounce – there are some that argue, for example, that sugar is essentially poisonous in large amounts, but I’d say most people can pronounce sugar (and are ok with eating it – Im not sure where I stand on the whole “sugar is poison thing, for what it’s worth). Finally, there might be very healthy foods that are difficult to pronounce. For example, I roamed around for months calling quinoa “kin-o-a” instead of “keenwa” like a super dork, but does this mean I shouldn’t eat it? One might counter again that I am missing the point, that this only applies to scary man made chemicals, but again, I would reply that this rule is arbitrary, and what one really should be doing is assessing each ingredient, whether they can pronounce the name or not!

I’m sure that after these two rants, you can see where I am going with the natural/organic food fallacy. Remember: just because something is “organic” or “natural,” it doesn’t mean that it is good for you! A main reason for this is that many of these healthy sounding labels are not highly regulated – I don’t even know what criteria a company has to follow to refer to something as “natural!” Therefore, companies sometimes put these labels on to make people think they are healthier, even when they aren’t – often, the only thing choosing to eat these products means is that they got you with their marketing (don’t worry, they’ve got me before, too). Yes, organic foods have strict regulations, but these don’t make them healthier…they make them more ethical! Eating organic foods for ethical reasons is something that makes sense. Eating them for health reasons, not so much, because if I recall correctly, there is basically no evidence that organic foods are healthier than their regular counterparts.

My point here is not that you all should go fill up on margarine and red Mountain Dew. I, like many of the people I am currently criticizing, would say that you should stick to foods that are less processed. I make this choice for a different reason, however – rather than arbitrarily deciding I didn’t like “chemicals,” I decided that I liked filling my calories up with foods that will be more satiating and give me more nutritious value, which happens to be these foods (obviously I don’t completely avoid processed foods, though). My point, then, is that when you are thinking about what you are going to include in a healthy diet, don’t follow arbitrary rules. Think about all of the individual choices you are making and make sure there is a logical reason that you are making them rather than fear, misunderstanding, or confusion.

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3 thoughts on “Eating Chemicals?

    • Absolutely!

      Also, I almost thought the satirical article was serious because I was reading it pre-coffee but then when I got to the table salt I had a lightbulb moment. I was also seriously confused because of who linked it (sciencey people that I’m sure you saw link it, too).

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