Please Don't Tell My Daughter There are 'Chemicals' in Her Soda
October 20, 2014
I had a special moment with my daughter, Dawn, the other day. I shared a Faygo Creme Soda with her. Faygo's a Michigan thing -- a local bottling company who makes a wide variety of soda drinks. When I was a little Michigander, Faygo Creme Soda was my mother's favorite flavor and as such it became one of my favorite flavors. I don't generally buy soda anymore, but I had a craving and I knew Dawn would like it if she tried it.
As we were sitting there sharing the bottle (she loved it, BTW), she said, "My teacher said we shouldn't drink a lot of pop because it has like 24 spoons of sugar in it."
I nodded. "Well, it has a lot of sugar in it. That's why I only have it as a treat."
"Do you drink diet pop?"
"I don't drink much pop at all.
"Good, because my teacher says you should never drink diet pop because it has chemicals in it."
I immediately frowned, because I hated hearing something like that coming out of the mouth of my six year old. I asked her if her teacher said what kind of chemicals, and she just said "Chemicals. They're bad for you."
I could not let this stand, because I will not have my child developing an irrational chemophobia before she's even old enough to take a real science class! I can't stand chemophobia. It's just one of those monolithic scare concepts with no root in measured reality. "Chemicals are bad." "GMOs are bad." "Drugs are bad, mm'kay?" Nope. Definitely not mmm'kay. I wasn't going to let this slide.
"Everything has chemicals in it," I said to my daughter. "This creme soda has chemicals in it. The milk you drink has chemicals in it. Everything is made of chemicals."
"Not water," she said matter-of-factly.
"Water is a chemical!"
Here's the thing: my daughter's teacher is a very nice person and I trust her with my daughter's education. I know this was just one of those things. 'Chemicals' has taken on this toxic connotation in society and a lot of well-meaning people simply don't realize the ignorance and fear they're spreading by using 'chemicals' in such a weasely, boogeyman way. From the context, I know the teacher meant well -- she was trying to get them to drink less soda of any variety. As a parent who doesn't keep soda in the house for dietary reasons (it's liquid candy and I don't like carbonated drinks generally) I am all for this well-meaning goal. But I wish she hadn't reached for the easy scare word.
Honestly, anyone complaining of 'chemicals' in food or drink probably doesn't know what they're talking about; if they did; they wouldn't be using 'chemicals' in such a generic way. A 'chemical' is literally defined as "stuff composed of matter." I'm chemicals. You're chemicals. This keyboard I'm typing on is chemicals. So is organic, vegan, non-GMO Greek yogurt. It's chemicals all the way down.
And yes, I know that when someone says 'chemicals' in the context of diet soda they mean something more specific than just 'all the stuff that makes up matter.' But my daughter didn't. So I spent the next couple minutes correcting an error in her thinking that I hope won't crop up again.
People, come up with a better way to express what you're afraid of! Which invites the question, of course: what are the alternatives for those hoping to warn against the dangers of some 'chemicals' but not the entirety of matter in the unniverse?
Sometimes, I'll hear 'man-made chemicals' or 'synthetic chemicals' and while that's more specific is nearly as awful as 'chemicals', in that it doesn't say anything remotely meaningful, just scary-sounding. It also sets up the false dichotomy that 'man-made = BAD' and therefore 'natural = GOOD.' Anyone who wants to take that argument up as true is more than welcome to drink a cup of delicious all-natural methyl mercury. I'll even provide the cup.
I've also seen 'harmful chemicals' used in some places. This is at the very least subcategorizing and allowing for there to be 'non-harmful chemicals,' so I am not opposed to it. However, even then it's an overgeneralized scare tactic phrase. There are harmful chemicals in my soda? Oh my God! Is it plutonium? That's a harmful chemical, right? 'Harmful chemicals' doesn't tell me anything; it just tries to make me afraid.
Here's the best option: people need to stop generalizing their fears and stop going around saying 'chemicals!' everywhere in any form. Is there a specific chemical in diet soda you don't like? Learn its name; learn specifically why you're afraid of it; learn to articulate why you don't like it in clear terms. "Diet soda has aspartame in it, consumption of which causes nausea and diarrhea in some people" is a statement that can be discussed, debated, and potentially falsified. Frame your chemical fears that way and you will sound more educated and less alarmist, because you will be more educated and you will be less alarmist. And who knows? You might end up being less afraid.
As for me, I'm going to enjoy this tasty mix of chemicals I brewed while was writing this before going to fix Dawn a tasty serving of chemicals for lunch (probably with a side of chemicals). I'm pretty sure she'll be okay with consuming all those chemicals. After all, she's survived this long on a diet of nothing but chemicals. They can't be all bad.
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