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Take Charge of Chemicals in Food

June 24, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe headlines get more dire all the time, and work to whip people into a panic about their food. Fear factor food isn’t something we want here at SlowMoneyFarm. We recognize that millions of Americans like the convenience and price of processed food, and we offer alternatives for those who want something different. But the increase in chemicals in food seems to have reached a furor.

Stop for just a minute. Remember those high school biology classes? Basic chemistry?Headlines scream about banned food in other countries being allowed in America and about the toxic chemicals like BHT, petroleum and other things we don’t want to think about eating. It’s designed to scare you. And it works if you don’t *think* about it.

Consider this:

Weirdly, you can buy BHT in some health food stores, where anti-aging and anti-viral claims are made for it. How does a health food store sell butylated hydroxytoluene with a straight face? Well, it’s also known to be produced by plankton, so you can always refer to it as a natural product, if that makes you feel better. That doesn’t do much for me – as an organic chemist, I know that the compounds found in plankton range from essential components of the human diet all the way down to some of the most toxic molecules found in nature.


Natural and organic don’t mean safe. There are plenty of plants, mushrooms and bacteria that are natural and organic but will kill you. There are many things that are good *at the right dose* that in excess will kill. Selenium. Salt. Water. All made from chemical compounds, because we classify chemical compounds.

And on the other side of the imaginary fence, there are plenty of man-made substances that really won’t do much of anything to people at all. You cannot assume anything about the effects of a chemical compound based on whether it came from a lovely rainforest orchid or out of a crusty Erlenmeyer flask. The world is not set up that way. Here’s a corollary to this: if I isolate a beneficial chemical compound from some natural source (vitamin C from oranges, for example, although sauerkraut would be a good source, too), that molecule is identical to a copy of it I make in my lab. There is no essence, no vital spirit. A compound is what it is, no matter where it came from.

There are indeed many things that can kill in quantity. If one eats 3 dozen pounds of bread dough per day you’ll probably have some health issues! If we eat 30 pounds of anything in a day there will probably be health issues!

Balance, moderation, information sources that don’t use all capital letters to shock you into action are good. Don’t criticize sodium chloride while saying “pass the salt please” at the dinner table.

Minor changes are still changes. A car, a truck and a bicycle all have tires but aren’t the same thing. We all have thousands of choices in the grocery store, and many many more outside the grocery store!

Take charge of your food choices, and look at the full picture of the chemical sounding names put forth. Hydrogen Dioxide can kill too, but we can’t do without water.

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