Food chemicals

I wonder about the trust put in things that are ‘organic’ compared to the distrust of ‘artificial’ or ‘man-made’. The organic does not need to justify that trust; it is sufficient that it is organic. Whereas the artificial, even when scientifically proven to be safe, is still distrusted.

This matters in modernist cooking because modernist cooking makes creative use of chemicals that no one is familiar with.

Yes, I did say chemicals – that evokes distrust also – aren’t chemicals supposed to be cancerous or, at the very least, explode?

Of course, everything is a chemical, even water. Table sugar is a chemical, and was once only available from pharmacies (apothecaries). Every organic food is made up of chemicals.

And why should just those chemicals in organic or ‘natural’ food be considered safe? Many plants and vegetables synthesise toxins and irritants to deter being eaten by herbivores and omnivores. Shellfish accumulate arsenic, fish – mercury. Some examples of  naturally-occuring and deadly toxins: botulin, ricin, aflatoxin, fumonisin, brevetoxin, tetrodotoxin, domoic acid.

On a less deadly note, the chilli developed capsaicin, which activates pain receptors (for temperature) in the mouths of mammals, but has no effect on birds. Thus their seeds could be widely dispersed by birds while the voracious mammals were deterred.

Spinach is high in iron, and a whole range of other nutrients, so it’s a good food to eat. However, it is also high in oxalic acid (1% by weight), and oxalic acid is a chemical that resists iron (and calcium) uptake in the human body. There’s an irony in food naturally high in iron coming pre-packed with an iron-uptake inhibitor. Don’t tell Popeye. Oxalic acid is classified as an anti-nutrient. Parsley and chives are other sources.

The seeds of many fruits contain cyanide, some at quite high levels such as apricots and peaches, also apples. The plant wants to ensure that when the fruit is eaten, the stone or seeds are not digested with the flesh, but rather expelled by the animal that ate it and thus able to germinate elsewhere.

And many plants (e.g. herbs) are so complex that it is difficult to unravel the toxicity or the health consequences of the myriad of chemicals they contain.

The solution that the FDA uses is to label these foods as GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe, and to not require further justification for human consumption.

Contrast that with a new chemical like Xanthan gum. These have to go through rigorous controlled scientific trials that can take decades to complete. Only then are they released for human consumption by the FDA.

So: Artificial chemicals have to be proven to be safe – organics are just GRAS

The irony is that if GRAS organics were subject to the stringent FDA approval process, many would probably fail. Given the adverse heath consequences of table sugar (sucrose), that might be one of them. Spinach another. Try explaining capsaicin to the guy at the FDA.

Adding to the problem of acceptance are the funny names. Most artificial chemicals are new, and so do not come with a common name. Whereas, the chemical names of common foods are rarely used and would probably cause dismay if they were. Some examples:

  • Dihydrogen monoxide, hydric acid or hydronium hydroxide (water)
  • 6-Acetyl-2,3,4,5-tetrahydropyridine (bread aroma)
  • Potassium bitartate (cream of tartar)
  • Cyanocobalamine (vitamin B12)

Then, there is the selective and deliberately misleading scare tactic. If you were offered something to eat, and then warned it was corrosive, a fire-retardant, a coolant in nuclear reactors, an industrial solvent, and that it could cause death if inhaled – would you consume it?

You should, because it’s water. The same scare-tactic could be used for spinach (oxalic acid is used to clean timber-decking) and chilli (capsaicin is blinding and disabling, and the active ingredient in the amusingly misnamed capsicum spray). It is easy to be selective and alarming. Even easier if it’s a modernist food chemical.

There is no simple answer to the biological safety of foods and their chemicals, but the ready acceptance of the organic mantra certainly needs a rethink.