5 Most Misunderstood Terms (Food Chemist’s Perspective)

  1. Organic
    Organic chemistry has almost nothing to do with how cows are fed. Upon hearing the word “organic”, a food chemist imagines a long chain of carbon atoms with hydrogens attached. The word “organic” may or may not elicit an involuntary shutter from the food chemist, for surviving organic chemistry is usually quite the ordeal.
  2. Energy
    The best inside joke among food chemists is the zero-calorie energy drink. Why?
    A calorie is a measurement of energy. No calories = no energy. (Also, energy is never created or destroyed, only transferred.) Moreover, one calorie is the amount of energy required to heat one gram of water at atmospheric pressure by one degree 
    Celsius. In an effort to confuse the world, someone somewhere decided it would be a good idea if 1,000 calories = 1 Calorie. One wonders what would happen if cardio machines displayed the calories (not Calories) burned.  
  3. Natural
    Practically every English dictionary defines the word “natural” as something that comes from nature. That said, the notion that anything other than produce or meat could be called “natural” makes the food chemist laugh (on the inside). One food chemist in particular likes to visualize her “All Natural” granola bar roaming the Great Plains. 
  4. Processed Food
    A sore subject for many food scientists, food is “processed” if it undergoes any of the following treatments: washing, grinding, mixing, cooling, storing, heating, freezing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, frying, drying, concentrating, pressurizing, irradiating, microwaving, and packaging. This list comes from the well-written and remarkably thorough article Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology. The bottom line that many people seem to forget is that not all processed foods are evil or created equal: Twinkies and granola bars are processed foods, but so is yogurt and so are those little baby carrots in a bag. 
  5. Irradiation*
    There are some people who worry that eating food that’s been irradiated could cause them to develop cancer or to genetically mutate. The truth is that irradiation does damage the DNA of living organisms (like E. coli in ground beef and insects in flour), but will not make the food radioactive. Citing the article from  the link above, “This poses no human risk, since normal digestion completely breaks down and metabolizes the DNA, whether that damage is minimal, as with irradiation, or extensive, as with cooking.” Consider this: scrambling an egg completely denatures (destroys) the protein and DNA, but no one is saying scrambled eggs cause cancer.
*Disclaimer: If you are firm in your stance against consuming irradiated food, I would first encourage you to do more research, particularly through the CDC and perhaps even NASA, as astronauts have benefited from foods made sterile by irradiation for years. Secondly, I would invite you to simply not consume food you are concerned about. Irradiated foods must be labeled so they are incredibly easy to spot/boycott. 

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