To Your Health: 'Chemical' not bad word, and 'natural' means nothing
By Leia Kedem/University of Illinois Extension
Water, sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose), starch, fiber, amino acids (glutamic acid, aspartic acid, histidine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, arginine, valine, alanine, serine, glycine, threonine, isoleucine, proline, tryptophan, cysteine, tyrosine, methionine), fatty acids: palmitic acid, omega-6 linoleic acid, omega-3 linolenic acid, oleic acid, palmitoleic acid, stearic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, capric acid, ash, phytosterols, oxalic acid, tocopherol, phylloquinone, thiamin, riboflavin, flavoring (ethyl hexanoate, ethyl butanoate, 3-methylbut-1-ylethanoate, pentyl acetate), natural ripening agent (ethylene gas).
Based on the ingredient list above, which food item would you have guessed it came from? Boxed macaroni and cheese? Bakery cookies? Fruit snacks? Nope. It's from a common fruit that you've probably eaten sometime in the past week — the humble "all-natural" banana.
You may have seen a graphic with this ingredient list floating around the Internet recently. James Kennedy, an Australian chemistry teacher, created pictures listing the ingredients in whole foods (like fruit) to counteract the increasingly popular idea that natural is good and anything with chemicals is bad.
These days, "chemical" is a bad word. This is a bit strange to me, since a chemical compound is just a bunch of connected elements (think hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur). It's not really useful to categorize all chemicals as bad because everything in the universe is composed of chemicals. Everything! Based on the combination of elements, you could end up with anything from table sugar to methamphetamine to fertilizer.
Something else I hear a lot is that if you can't pronounce the ingredients, then it's probably not good for you. Considering that even I sometimes have trouble deciphering some chemical names, that's just not true. Chemicals may be added to foods for a variety of purposes; without them, cherry pie filling would be runny, chips would go rancid quickly and muffins would be flat as pancakes.
At the same time, anything "natural" seems to have a halo around it. Studies have found that we perceive foods labeled as natural to be more nutritious and taste better while being safer than foods that do not have the label. Companies have jumped on the trend in the past few years, and it's hard to walk down any aisle at the supermarket without seeing the word emblazoned across product packages.
But get this — companies wanting to call a product "natural" don't have to go through a verification process with the FDA to use the term. You may be surprised to know that partially hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup can legally be found in a product that is "natural." Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined "natural" for the meat and poultry products it regulates. According to the USDA, meat and poultry can be labeled as natural if it contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is minimally processed.
Another point of contention is whether natural is better for our bodies. For many, the idea of making chemicals like flavorings in a lab conjures up fears of "messing with nature." However, chemists appreciate that compounds can be synthesized in a controlled environment with much more consistent results. Reactions occurring in nature are much more variable and unpredictable. Regardless of whether a chemical is naturally derived or synthesized in a lab, our bodies have no way of discerning whether a chemical compound is artificial or not. So biologically speaking, there is no difference.
Now that the waters are thoroughly muddied, I want you to consider one more thing — the dose-response effect. Anything can be poison in the right dose, including natural chemicals. For instance, certain plants make a chemical called rotenone as a defensive mechanism against insects. Since rotenone is naturally derived, it is commonly used in organic agriculture as an insecticide. It is also routinely used to kill off nuisance fish populations and manage wetlands. In the right doses, rotenone can be toxic to humans, too.
Another example is that eating too many carrots can make your skin temporarily turn yellow or orange. That's not too serious, but getting too much vitamin A over time (like from a supplement) can actually cause health problems like eye and liver damage.
On the other hand, known poisons or toxins can be ingested without causing health problems if the dose is small. You may have heard of the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists put out by the Environmental Working Group. These lists encourage consumers to buy organic when it comes to foods like strawberries, apples, nectarines, cherries, lettuce and more because they have tested positive for as many as 67 different types of chemicals. Scary, right?
The idea that something has any pesticides at all can be frightening, and it is true that organics may have lower absolute levels of pesticide residues. But well-designed scientific studies consistently show that consumer exposures to the pesticides tested on the "Dirty Dozen" list are at negligible levels, within EPA limits.
The pesticide calculator at safefruitsandveggies.com (try it yourself!) calculates that based on the highest pesticide amounts that have been recorded on strawberries, a typical adult woman could eat up to 2,042 servings of conventionally grown strawberries without any risk of health problems. At seven medium berries per serving (14,294 berries total ), that's just physically impossible. And even if the berries exceeded maximum recorded pesticide levels, there's still a huge margin of safety there.
I think the growing interest in our health and the food we eat is fantastic, but let's just take a small step back (or maybe a giant one) when it comes to buzz words and food fears. Remember that quality of life is an essential part of health as well. Thanks to our busy schedules, it's darn near impossible to go through life without making a boxed dinner. And besides, life certainly wouldn't be as fun without an occasional bag of neon-colored candy.
Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.