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Chemical conundrum

A (relatively harmless) ingredients list, earlier
Anyone with the faintest sympathy for science winces when a friend announces that they are 'Fed up of food that is full of chemicals' or 'Only buying organic food, as it's the only way to get food that is 100% chemical free.' As I'm sure we're all aware, everything we eat (and most things we don't) is totally and entirely made up of chemicals. However, when you look at the ingredients list of processed food at the supermarket, it's easy to see why people are concerned.

Take this product, which you can find in any major UK supermarket:
Aqua 84%, sugars 10% (of which fructose 48%, glucose 40%, sucrose 2%), fibre 2.4% (E460, E461, E462, E464, E466, E467), amino acids (glutamic acid 23%, aspartic acid 18%, leucine 17%, arginine 8%, alanine 4%, valine 4%, glycine 4%, proline 4%, isoleucine 4%, serine 4%, threonine 3%, phenylalanine 2%, lysine 2%, methionine 2%, tyrosine 1%, histidine 1%, cysteine 1%, tryptophan lt 1%), fatty acids lt 1% (linoleic acid 30%, linolenic acid 19%, oleic acid 18%, palmitic acid 6%, stearic acid 2%, palmitoleic acid lt 1%), ash lt 1%, phytosterols, oxalic acid, E300, E306, thiamine, colours (E163a, E163b, E163e, E163f, E160), flavours (ethyl ethanoate, 4-methyl butyraldehyde, 2-methyl butyraldehyde, pentanal, methylbutyrate, octene, hexanal, styrene, nonane, non-1-ene, linalool, citral, benzaldehyde, butylated hydroxytoluene (E321), methylparaben, E1510, E300, E440, E421, aeris (E941, E948, E290)
Scary, isn't it? To start with this stuff is 94% sugar water (quite similar to Coca Cola which is also approximately 10% sugar). It also contains a range of toxins and carcinogens. Then there are all those colours and flavours - surely unnecessary? And there are enough E numbers in there to make the average hyperactive child bounce of the walls. It probably ought to be banned.

What makes this contents list interesting, though, is that it isn't some artificial rubbish - it is a blueberry. Not vaguely blueberry flavoured gunk, an actual blueberry fruit, that most beloved of the superfruits amongst the healtherati.

I think there are number of lessons here. Fruit is primarily sugar water, and as such should be consumed in moderation. There are good things in there, but you don't want too much of that sugar. The trouble with 'five a day' as a concept is that it doesn't distinguish between fruit and veg. Of those five at least three and arguably four should be veg.

Secondly, practically every food contains poisons and carcinogens. Many edible plants, for instance, contain vicious natural pesticides that are harmful to humans too. But they are in such small quantities that they have no noticeable effect. Poison is always a matter of dosage.

And finally, for the E-number obsessed, remember that many natural and/or harmless substance have E numbers, as the blueberry kindly demonstrates. Note the last item for instance. Ingredients listers (is there such a trade?), especially those in cosmetics, like to call water 'aqua' to make it sound more impressive. So I have done the same with the last item, which is just air. Simply putting it in Latin makes it aer, which is a bit too close to English, so I've taken the liberty of making it 'of air' to sound more impressive. And look - good fresh air contains E numbers.

Of course I'm not saying every item in a ingredients list is harmless in the quantities used. However, the fact that we don't provide contents list for fruit and veg does make other foods seem unfairly nasty and unnatural, and I think it is valuable to see how much this can be an illusion.

This has been a green heretic production

Data courtesy of Graham Steel who passed it on from James Kennedy.


  1. (written with perspective from Alaska, USA)

    My father's hobby was a 2-acre vegetable garden - fully half was strawberries. We did not have soft drinks or ice cream much, but when we did fresh strawberries (frozen in the winter) went into a blender with vanilla ice cream and milk to make "shakes". As a result when I first had a "strawberry milkshake" at Dairy Queen with no actual strawberries in it I never ordered a second one.

    He subscribed to both Organic Farming and Gardening and Prevention magazines - and I was an early reader - so I was well-aware of those "scary" food ingredients - or at least what Rodale and his staff (and other researchers) thought of them.

    I was also aware of chemical pesticides - which were perhaps not so nice in the 60s. Dad did not use them - after all, his was a hobby, not his (our) livelihood. Alaska has the advantage of few pests - unless you count the bull moose who once nibbled Dad's cabbages - undaunted by shouting and vigorous "threats" using a fake.

    His potatoes (another acre) were not "organic" in the American regulatory sense. I gather that "organic", started in the 40s, was (is) a purity standard. I helped with his "violation", in that I sowed granules of blue-white nitrogen in with seed potatoes at planting. I'm damned if that is somehow "impure", plus it has the added benefit of helping to forestall soil depletion, AND is much more efficient than compost, manure, and other fashionable fertiilizers.

    I am not well-informed about additives and preservatives, but suspect the FDA has studied most of the current ones - so "scary" does not enter into this American's consideration.

    As I read here and there; since the 60s, I have also become aware that food poisoning was more common for my father's (born 1916) and HIS father's generations (Poland and West Virginia) - by at least one (two?) order(s) of magnitude. Regulation of food processing is a big reason, but some of those "scary" ingredients add to food safety.

    (now that I have read the ENTIRE article, thanks for bringing up my own reactions to the first half - "natural", in some instances, are naturally deadly - and much of civilization has helped us live sheltered from "nature" for mere decades of us and millenia for our ancestors)


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