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A Fun Quiz About Chemicals

by Mike Rothschild

September 23, 2014

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Donate The cautionary maxim “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” became popular thanks to food writer and activist Michael Pollan. In an NPR story from 2008, he wrote it as an easy to remember phrase: “Don't buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce.”

Since then, popular alternative medicine websites and food activists like “Food Babe” have run with this simplistic notion, turning it into a virtual crusade against anything that sounds like it might be harmful, artificial or created by a corporation.

This has lead to an explosion of chemphobia, massive windfalls for the organic and supplement industries and an almost pathological fear of “toxic chemicals in food.” The maxim essentially boils down to chemicals = bad, big words = bad, natural = good, simple = good. If you eat simple things, you’re healthy. If you eat things with hard-to-pronounce ingredients in it, you’re fat, sick and about to die.

But science and chemistry are rarely this cut and dried. A maxim like "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it" allows for no deviance, no questioning and no additional information. What you really should be saying is: What is a chemical? What is an ingredient? Are they bad? Why are they bad? Can they ever be good? What makes some substances good and some not good? Is anything with a long name automatically something that should be avoided? Are you eating some anyway, despite your best efforts to avoid them?

The chemphobia pushers and food crusaders aren’t interested in these questions, either because they’d cut into their profits or because they just don’t know enough about science to understand the answers. But you should be interested, especially when it comes to something as important as your health and the food you eat.

With that in mind, I want to play a little game. I’ve taken a short list of “chemicals” from four different sources. They are:

A: The chemical names of vitamins that are in everything you eat
B: Essential unsaturated fatty acids that you need to live
C: Chemical substances added to food that sound harmful but aren't
D: Highly toxic substances that will cause you great harm

There are five each from all four sources. Some of them are the elemental building blocks of life. Others will kill you if you ingest them. All of them have names that are hard to pronounce, and so, by the logic of Pollan and others, should be avoided.

Do you know which one belongs in which category?

Dihomo-?-linolenic acid
glycerol triacetate
Nicotinic acid
Docosatetraenoic acid
Butylated hydroxyanisole
Mitomycin C
Propyl gallate
Sodium azide
Nervonic acid
Docosahexaenoic acid
Fluoroacetic acid
Eicosapentaenoic acid

How many can you identify? I'll tweet the answers later in the week, but for now, take a guess at which of these hard-to-pronounce chemicals are actually vital, and which you should truly avoid. And know that anything as complicated as chemistry can't be boiled down to the simplicity of "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it."

by Mike Rothschild

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