Apr 18 2014

OMG – The Chemicalz

The Foodbabe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.

I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.

She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.

Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.

Her twitter feed recently contained this gem:


She calls propylene glycol the “anti-freeze ingredient.” That comment officially makes her the Jenny McCarthy of food.

Propylene glycol does indeed lower the freezing point of water, and you can use it as anti-freeze, which says exactly nothing about its safety as a food ingredient. For the record, the chemical in car anti-freeze is ethylene glycol, which is toxic. Propylene glycol is considered non-toxic and is used as an anti-freeze for water pipes and in food production where ingestion is possible.

A recent review of the toxicological literature for propylene glycol found essentially no risk to human health. The review concluded:

The existing safety evaluations of the FDA, USEPA, NTP and ATSDR for these compounds are consistent and point to the conclusion that the propyleneglycols present a very low risk to human health.

There is no need to quibble with this one – there is simply no evidence of risk to human health from this class of compounds. You would have to consume massive amounts of the chemical, impossible from food, in order to get anywhere near toxic levels.

But never mind all that sciencey-wiencey evidence – the Foodbabe has proclaimed it the anti-freeze chemical and declared it scary.

What about sodium benzoate? This is a food preservative which extends the shelf-life and safety of food. It is actually a metabolite of cinnamon. Not surprisingly, a review of the toxicology literature found that it was safe in the amounts found in food. There is a small risk of skin irritation, and we don’t have safety data for inhaling sodium benzoate, but the levels found in food are orders of magnitude lower than well-established safety limits.

Both of these compounds are considered GRAS by the FDA, or generally regarded as safe. There is simply no reason to worry about these food additives. They are as safe as any chemicals you will find in your food, even food considered to be entirely “natural.”


The naturalistic fallacy, the false and simplistic belief that things that are “natural” are somehow better or safer than substances which are synthetic, is perhaps the most pervasive bit of nonsense in our culture. Nature, in fact, does not care about us and many substances evolved specifically to be toxic or poisonous.

We, however, evolved an emotion of disgust as a heuristic for avoiding potentially contaminated or spoiled food. The point of emotions is to replace the need for careful analysis with an immediate reaction, one that is good enough in most circumstances and is likely to err on the side of false positives.

As a result we like our food to be wholesome and pure, and we have an innate fear of anything strange or unfamiliar. The concept of “natural” is a replacement for the notions of wholesome and pure, and aggressive marketing has encouraged people to think of “all natural” in such terms. It is likewise easy to fearmonger about unfamiliar substances in our food, especially if given by their chemical names, which make them sound synthetic.

We no longer have to rely upon emotions we evolved millions of years ago and which are not well adapted to our technological civilization. We can conduct scientific analysis, measure precise ingredients and amounts and study their effects on biological systems.

The Foodbabe, however, wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

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