Should We Be Concerned About Chemicals in Our Food – A Chemist’s View
Written by Ken Osborn, Retired Laboratory Scientist, for the AllergyKids Foundation February 12, 2012
As a chemist I sometimes get asked about “chemicals in our food” and should we be concerned. We hear about antibiotics used to control bacterial outbreaks in chickens, growth hormone used in milk production, and pesticides used for keeping produce insect free. And now there are genetically modified organisms (GMO) added to the list.
Yes, I believe that we should be concerned about chemicals in the foods we eat and that we have some level of confidence that we can safely consume them. However, as a chemist I have some difficulty with the phrase “chemical free” as in “I want to eat produce that is chemical free.” These words undermine the message. The use of the term “chemical free” makes it easy for others to discount the arguments for alternatives to achieving a healthier life by changing the food industry business model.
I base this on my understanding as a chemist, retired from the laboratory community, who knows that water is a chemical, you are made up of chemicals, and that it is impossible to make any environment, substance, or food chemical free.
All chemicals (even water) are toxic at some level; some chemicals (proteins) can be the source of allergies; some chemicals (arsenic) are very toxic at low levels and should not be consumed; and some chemicals are necessary for life but can be toxic at high doses (vitamin A).
Genetically modified food production should be regulated to an extent that it is proved safe for consumption prior to being allowed into the market place. It doesn’t matter that it is not “chemical-free”; it matters that it hasn’t been proven safe.
I do understand that when folks use the term “chemical free” they are usually referring to substances not generally found in nature and having lots of carbon bonds. Perhaps the conceptual problem originates from the ad campaigns of previous decades that gave us “chemistry for a better life.” Chemicals have always been with us and will always be with us. But we shouldn’t have to accept that a manufactured food is safe until proven dangerous: it should be considered unmarketable until it’s proven safe.
I hope this helps a little in understanding the difference between chemicals in food and safety in food production.
© Ken Osborn