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SKEPTOID BLOG:

A Fun Quiz About Chemicals: The Answers!

by Mike Rothschild

September 30, 2014

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Donate Last week's Skeptoid post took a look at the maxim of "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it" and found it to be silly and simplistic. Judging a chemical (or anything, for that matter) to be "bad" because it has a long and hard-to-say name is chemphobic and displays a lack of basic understanding about what a chemical is. Everything everywhere is made of chemicals, and while some are indeed toxic at the right dose, many others are essential for life.

With that in mind, I posted the names of 20 chemicals and asked readers if they could tell which ones were "bad" and which ones were "good" just by their names. Some are a long mouthful, others short and easy to say. Does that
I was asked to post the answers to the quiz, and since I'm nothing if not devoted to my fans (both of you know who you are!) here is what each chemical is, along with a brief comment.



In case you don't remember, the chemicals were in four categories:

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

And the answers are:

Dihomo-?-linolenic acid — B: despite its long and hard to pronounce name, this is an essential acid with anti-inflammatory properties.

glycerol triacetate — C: Among other uses, this is a solvent used as an artificial flavoring and to keep foods moist. It's considered Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA.

Nicotinic acid — A: This sounds really bad, doesn't it? It's actually the chemical name of niacin.

Menatetrenone — A: Five syllables? Must be trouble — or one of the chemical names of vitamin K.

Docosatetraenoic acid — B: I can't even try pronouncing this, but if I boycotted it, I'd have some mental issues, because this is one of the fatty acids essential to early brain development.

Butylated hydroxyanisole — C: This is the much-feared additive BHA. While some studies have shown toxicity in rats, follow-up research hasn't borne out any harmful effects in humans, and it's GRAS.

Amiton — D: Well, this sounds like a happy, cheerful chemical. But it's actually the trade name of a pesticide made from a form of nerve gas.

Ergocalciferol — A: The chemical name of vitamin D2.

Mitomycin C — D: A toxic organic compound that can be used in small doses as a cancer-killing agent. So this one is both harmful and useful. Science is funny that way.

Propyl gallate — C: An ester used to prolong the shelf-life of foods, as well as in a number of cosmetics. Another chemical that the food police demand you avoid, yet has not been shown to cause harm in humans, and that's considered GRAS.

Cyanocobalamin — A: An artificial form of vitamin B12 that made by fermenting bacteria.

Sodium azide — D: When exposed to water or metal, this becomes an incredibly toxic gas that has no discernible odor. However, it is one very common use: as the gas that ignites in car airbags. It explodes upon electrical charge and turns into nitrogen — and might save your life.

Nervonic acid — B: While this sounds like the chemical some evil genius would use to wipe out the planet, nervonic acid is vital to creating nerve-protecting myelin in the brain.

Norbormide — D: This is the chemical name of a fast-acting compound poisonous to rats.

Tartrazine — C: The most common synthetic yellow dye, tartrazine is thought to cause sensitivity symptoms in a small group of people, about 1 in 10,000. But the mechanism by which this happens is unclear, and further study is needed.

Docosahexaenoic acid — B: Also known as DHA, this sinister sounding chemical is one of the omega-3 fatty acids that you can find on store shelves around the world.

Tocopherol — A: You know this one better as vitamin E.

tert-Butylhydroquinone — C: A chemical preservative with uses in both food and industrial settings, this might have some harmful effect to the reproductive system of rats. No adverse reactions have been seen in humans, despite the warnings of alt-medicine websites. It's regarded as safe in both Europe and the US.

Fluoroacetic acid — D: A form of sodium that's used as a pesticide.

Eicosapentaenoic acid — B: Another omega-3 fatty acid that you might be taking right now.

So what have we learned? For one thing, don't just chemicals simply by their names, no matter how long or short they are. Also, the same chemical can have many different uses, being toxic in one form or dose and completely harmless in another form or dose. And you can't assume that just because a compound is used in an industrial setting, it's unsafe to use in food. There are chemists and scientists who spend their careers researching these things, and their findings are much more useful than the warnings of chemphobes like the "Food Babe" or Mike Adams.

Finally, if you stopped eating anything with an ingredient you couldn't pronounce, you'd very quickly rob yourself of the essential compounds you need to live.

by Mike Rothschild

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