Sodium bicarbonate. Ascorbic acid. Dihydrogen monoxide. If you’re a health-conscious eater who tries to avoid synthetic or processed ingredients, these names might sound suspect. But in fact, they’re totally harmless—and you’re probably consuming them on a regular basis. They’re the chemical names for baking soda, vitamin C and water.During a time when eating as naturally and organically as possible is a goal that so many of us aspire to, it seems that there’s been an equal rise in the wariness of chemicals.
For some, this negative connotation and suspicion of chemicals can lead to chemophobia, an exaggerated, irrational fear of anything chemical. Chemophobia is widespread in both the Western world and Asia, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Food Security. As study author Gordon Gribble, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at Dartmouth University, put it: “The word ‘chemical’ became a dirty word!”
Chemicals Are Everywhere:
’Chemophobia’ exists solely because an intelligent and concerned public is undereducated about chemicals, with no clear understanding of what they are, where they come from, or indeed, the extent to which they affect literally every facet of our lives,” says Gribble.
While there aren’t estimates of how many people have chemophobia, “I suspect that more people than not have an irrational fear of chemicals, simply because they don’t know what chemicals are!” notes Gribble. “A chemical is a substance made up of atoms that are connected by bonds to form a molecule. Everything you see or smell is a chemical or a mixture of chemicals—the world is made up of nothing but chemicals.
“So while some may hope for a “chemical-free” world, that’s actually impossible because chemicals make up, well, everything.Of course, minimizing our exposure to toxins—whether from natural or man-made chemicals—is certainly a good thing, and there are specific harmful chemicals that really should to be avoided. Cases in point: Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in many plastics, is associated with reproductive problems, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and more, concluded a 2013 Reproductive Toxicology review of 91 studies. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a preservative added to cereals, vegetable oils and baked goods, causes tumors in rodents and is thought to likely be a human carcinogen, according to a National Toxicology Program report.
Because of the number of chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis and the fact that harmful chemicals do exist, it’s easy—and understandable—to become scared of chemicals in general and fall prey to the thinking that chemicals are always bad and natural is always good. But it’s not so cut-and-dried.
Is going organic better for your health and the environment? Yes. But even organic products aren’t perfect and tend to have a “health halo” around them: Research shows that shoppers falsely believe organic foods contain fewer calories than their conventional counterparts. And surprisingly, that’s even more true for people who consider themselves and environmentally and health-savvy. “You think the food walks on water,” says Jonathon Schuldt, Ph.D., a Cornell researcher who studies food label perceptions. Even the aura of naturalness can be enough to make something seem good for you when it’s not.
In Schuldt’s 2013 study, consumers were more apt to see candy bars with green calorie labels as healthier than the same candy bars with red or white labels, simply because they associated green with the idea of natural wholesomeness.
Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Risk-Free:
There are plenty of instances where natural foods, as well as natural beauty products, can have not-so-great chemicals, too. Certain foods, such as spinach, beets and strawberries, contain oxalic acid, too much of which can cause kidney stones and can mess with the body’s ability to absorb iron. The National Institutes of Health advises against eating potatoes that have sprouted or have a green tinge, since those are signs that the spuds contain solanine, a naturally occurring poison. In addition, cyanide shows up in nearly 200 species of plants.
Even otherwise-healthy stuff can become contaminated with harmful substances. “Organically grown fruits and vegetables can be fertilized with manure, which creates the risk for food-borne illnesses from bacteria like E. coli or listeria,” notes Gribble. Other organic fertilizers have been found to contain heavy metals like arsenic and lead.
There are also plenty of natural chemicals that sound scary, but are harmless. The sweet, honey-like aroma of a fresh, ripe pineapple? In the science world, it’s known as the compound ethyl butyrate. Maltodextrin might seem like something that should be avoided at all costs, but it’s really just corn-derived starch that adds texture to packaged foods like cereal and is considered completely safe by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Bottom Line:
Chemicals are everywhere and in everything. Plenty of the substances have weird names that make them sound scarier than they really are. Other times, we give too much credit to things just because they come from nature. “Obsessions to avoid chemicals and toxins are problematic when they interfere with quality of life,” says clinical health psychologist Lauren Ampolos, Ph.D. “No one can be perfect.”
Your best bet:
Know what you put in and on your body. Aim to eat organic whenever possible and avoid processed foods; steer clear of items that contain BPA such as receipts, canned goods, and food containers, water bottles and baby bottles made from plastic; try expert-recommended natural makeup; and if you come across a strange-sounding word in a list of ingredients, look it up to see what it is before writing it off.