© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD
There’s so much fear and uncertainty out there. If you pay any attention to Facebook and Teh Interwebs, the air is killing is, the water is killing us, and, worst of all, our food is killing us. Chemicals!
Let’s straighten out some simple misperceptions. I promise, this won’t hurt.
Truth 1: Your food is loaded with chemicals.
It’s true. A chemical is just a compound or a substance that can be isolated or identified. Water is a chemical, salt is a chemical. Ethyl butanoate, phenylalanine, and aspartic acid are all chemicals, too, and they’re all a natural part of what makes a banana. Some chemical names look scary – like 3-methylbut-1-YL-ethanoate, another banana constituent. Others look friendly, like “ricin.” But ricin isn’t a natural part of rice (it actually comes from the castor bean.) It’s a deadly poison, and just one milligram of it can kill you.
So: all food is all chemicals, and whether or not the name of the chemical is scary has nothing to do with how much or how little it might harm you.
Truth 2: Your food is loaded with pesticides, too.
OK, I get it—“chemical” is just shorthand for “bad chemical”. And by “bad chemicals”, we mean pesticides and preservatives and toxins.
By that definition, your fruits and veggies are loaded with “bad chemicals”, too. They’re put there by nature. Plants are not just happy organisms that are here to feed us. They’ve evolved, too, in a natural world filled with plant parasites, plant predators, and other plants that want to steal their nutrients and sunshine. So plants have developed plenty of chemicals themselves that act as “natural” toxins to give them a competitive advantage over other organisms. Plants make all sorts of toxins and chemicals specifically to prevent fungal and parasitic attacks, to make them taste less appealing when fruit is unripe, and to make them taste more appealing when fruits ripen.
A classic study, from 1990, illustrated this well. Dr, Bruce Ames and colleagues found that 99.99% by weight of the “pesticides”—the chemicals that kill pests—that they found in foods were made by the foods themselves. For instance, cabbage, good old cabbage, contains terpenes (isomenthol, carvone), cyanides (1-cyano-2,3-epithiopropane), and phenols (3-cafffoylquinic acid.) Tasty! All of these, and far more (listed in table 1 of that link and pasted below), are naturally made by cabbage. So the cabbage can survive.
Adding up the measured quantities of residual synthetic pesticides and related chemicals, Dr. Ames’ team found that the quantity of naturally-occurring pesticides outweighed those added by farmers by 10,000 times. Yes, your veggies are loaded with pesticides. Nature put them there.
By the way—Dr. Bruce Ames is no gadfly. He developed the “Ames test” that remains in wide use to determine if a chemical is a mutagen (a potential carcinogen.) He is a real scientist who cut his teeth long before we decided anyone can “do the research” with Google.
Truth 3. Natural pesticides are just as harmful as synthetic ones.
We have this romantic, idealized view of nature—it’s nice and filled with bluebirds. In truth, nature is a fearless, relentless monster that can kill you five times before you hit the ground. Every organism competes with every other organism for survival, using claws and teeth and toxins and poisons. Small pox is natural, and it wants to kill you (or wanted to kill you, until we killed it first). Lightning is natural, and volcanoes, and frostbite and starvation and tapeworms and malaria. The natural world and natural things have killed far more organisms than humans ever have or ever will.
But what about those man-made, synthetic chemicals—they’re not “natural”, so maybe they’re more harmful. Let’s ask Dr. Ames. From that same study, in 1990, he showed that of 52 of the natural pesticides he had found in natural food, 27 of them were documented carcinogens. Half of them. Ironically, the proportion of synthetic chemicals that he had found were mutagenic was also about half. In Ames’ study, he said:
We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.
That makes sense, actually—when you let go of that odd romantic view of nature, and realize that natural organisms evolve to compete, it makes sense that natural chemical defenses will be harmful, too. That’s why they exist. Organisms need chemicals to protect them from pests, and there’s no particular reason to think that the chemicals they invent are any more or less harmful than the chemicals we invent.
Truth 4. “Organic foods” have plenty of added pesticides and chemicals.
OK, you might say. But organic foods have no added pesticides or chemicals! Even if the added amount with conventional foods is tiny, why not avoid that tiny added potential risk?
Because organic foods do have added pesticides and chemicals. Plenty of them. Here’s a link from the US government to approved lists of allowed substances, things that can be added to foods that are labeled organic. It includes sub-lists, including “synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production”—tasties like copper oxychloride, lignin sulfonate, and sucrose octanoate esters. You may also enjoy browsing the section on “Non agricultural (nonorganic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic (specified ingredients for food groups)’.” I could list many more scary chemicals (diethylaminoethanol! octadecylamine!) and unpleasant-sounding food additives (catalase from bovine liver!)—but you get the point. Organic, inorganic, natural, synthetic—it’s all chemicals. Organic is not added-pesticide free, not even close.
So: despite what the self-appointed internet experts are telling you, chemicals cannot be avoided—and natural foods contain far more harmful and natural preservatives, pesticides, and “toxins” than we add ourselves. Let’s keep this whole “chemicals in food” scare in perspective. There’s no need to fear what you eat.