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    Should We Be Concerned About Chemicals in Our Food – A Chemist’s View

    February 13, 2012 •  one comment.

     •  Blog, News

    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

    About Ken Osborn:
    Retired laboratory scientist after 33 years as a laboratory supervisor and quality assurance manager in an environmental testing laboratory and six years teaching science and math at high school and community college level. In addition to the usual publications and conference presentations, Ken has been actively involved in professional activities related to laboratory sciences with an appointment to an EPA Federal Advisory Committee Technical Group, chairing a Technical Advisory Committee to the State of California Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program, and editorial advisory board member of the journal Water Environment Federation Solutions. His passions in retirement include photography, gardening, and maintaining a blog on the intersection of photography and mathematics. His blog is at http://misterkenblog.blogspot.com/ .

      One Response to “Should We Be Concerned About Chemicals in Our Food – A Chemist’s View”

      1. I agree 100%. The food supply in this country is in a sad state and needs all the help it can get.

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