Does My Food Have Chemicals?

Fri, 24 May 2013 - 10:03 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

While eating natural, whole foods is better for you than processed foods that contain a lot of fat and sodium, or little fiber, sometimes the idea of chemicals in food gets caught up in the discussion of what’s healthy or harmful. Likewise, food manufacturers sometimes throw around the term organic, which has no legal meaning in our otherwise well-regulated grocery store aisles. In order for manufacturers to make claims on labels like low-fat, fat-free, low-sodium, and the like, they must meet specific criteria. In order for a food to be considered low-fat, for example, it must contain three grams of fat or less per serving. Foods labeled low-cholesterol are required to contain 20 milligrams of it or less per serving, and two grams or less of saturated fat per serving. By contrast, there is no legal obligation to avoid using pesticides or perform any other food-growth or -preparation method in order to call a food organic. (There are restrictions on using the words certified organic or using the seal of the U.S. National Organic Program on packaging.)

In any case, in the sometimes confusing realm of what’s natural, organic, genetically-modified, or containing chemicals, it’s important to step back and remember that chemicals, in and of themselves, are not good or bad—everything is made up of them. A recent and rather eloquent illumination of this concept comes from modernist chef and inventor Nathan Myhrvold. 

Briefly, it’s worth knowing about Myhrvold that he entered college at age 14, and after earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, received his master’s in economics and geophysics, and by age 23 had his PhD in mathematical physics and had gone on to Cambridge University to study quantum physics alongside Stephen Hawking. He later apprenticed under Seattle chef Thierry Rautureau and went on to win a world barbecuing championship. In March he completed a six-volume cookbook entitled Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. It seems useful, then, to hear what Myhrvold has to say about chemicals in food. In an online interview with Big Think, a web-based project of forward-thinking experts discussing various topics, Myhrvold explained:

“People ask me, ‘Doesn’t your food have a lot of chemicals in it?’ Yes, and it has a lot of elements too,” he says. “Everything in life is made up of elements and chemicals. When people say ‘chemicals’ what they’re thinking is that this must be some artificial thing which is going to be bad for me. Because a lot of packaged food companies made a lot of food that doesn’t taste all that great and isn’t very high quality, and has some legitimate health concerns related to it, there’s a strong tendency to want to throw the baby out with the bath water and say, ‘Oh my God, we should have everything be all natural.’ 

“Those people who like natural foods still like muffins. Muffins are made with baking soda. And there really isn’t any such thing as free-range baking soda.” This is Myhrvold’s way of saying chemicals aren’t something to fear or reject intrinsically. He also encourages us to explore what we even mean by ‘processed’ foods. Clearly, he is not advocating consuming lots of processed meats, or trans-fat laden baked goods. This he addresses above. He simply wants to point out that many foods are processed that we don’t categorize with the same negative connotations as processed foods, and with good reason: some processing is harmless. 

“A friend of mine said, ‘I don’t like processed foods. I like simple things like bread, wine, and cheese.’ Well there’s no more processed foods in the world than bread, wine, or cheese. People have over a long period of time developed a set of very exacting techniques that take grape juice and make wine. Similarly, bread isn’t just wheat. It’s not a question of whether the food is natural—bread is completely unnatural. Wine is totally unnatural. So if you have a belief that natural is good and unnatural is bad, it’s a little simplistic. Sometimes the best way to eat the food is just to eat the raw food or simply prepare it. But sometimes the best way to eat something is to use some technique and creativity.”

At the very least, these thoughts call into question what we really mean by terms like organic, natural, and processed. For a list of guidelines manufacturers must follow when they use the words certified organic or place the seal of the U.S. National Organic Program on their packaging, visit http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop.

 

Big Think, “These Chemicals are Good for You,” by Nathan Myhrvold, http://bigthink.com/nathanmyhrvold

 

USFDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a Food Labeling Guide, June 1999

 

National Organic Program, http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2011 • Volume 29, Number 5)




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