News ID: 177454
Published: 0310 GMT February 11, 2017

How many chemicals are in everything we eat?

How many chemicals are in everything we eat?

All foods — and everything else around us — are made up of chemicals, whether they occur in nature or are made in a lab.

The idea that there is a difference between ‘natural’ chemicals, like those found in fruits and vegetables, and the synthetic version of those chemicals is just a bad way of looking at the world, according to

Everything we smell or taste is a response to chemicals.

The characteristic smell of cloves, for example, comes from one chemical called eugenol. And cinnamon, which is just the dried inner-bark of specific trees, gets its aroma and flavor from the compound cinnamaldehyde.

So, both artificial and natural flavors contain chemicals. The distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of chemicals.

Natural flavors are created from anything that can be eaten, like animals and vegetables, even if those edible things are processed in the lab to create flavorings.

Artificial flavors come from anything that is inedible, such as petroleum that is processed to create chemicals of flavorings.

Sometimes a chemical flavoring could be made from either natural or artificial sources — the resulting molecule is the same, but the route to making it can be different.

So, why use artificial flavors at all? The synthetic chemicals in artificial flavors generally cost less to produce than finding natural sources of chemicals.

They are also potentially safer because they have been rigorously tested and used. Producing them can be more eco-friendly as well since it doesn't require growing fields of food first.

The compound vanillin, for example, is responsible for the flavor and smell of vanilla. In nature, vanillin comes from an orchid native to Mexico. But the process of extracting this pure, natural chemical is extremely lengthy and expensive. So scientists found a way to make a synthetic version of vanillin in a lab.

In 2006, Japanese researcher Mayu Yamamoto figured out how to extract vanillin from cow poop. She was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize at Harvard University for this development.

Most people don't realize that there can be as many chemicals in a food's natural flavor as its artificial counterpart. The number of chemical ingredients used to make the artificial strawberry flavor in a fast food strawberry shake, for example, is similar, chemically to the number of chemicals in a fresh strawberry.

Artificial grape flavor is derived from a chemical in concord (purple) grapes — not the red or green grapes we're used to buying in supermarkets.

This is why artificial grape-flavored things like candy and soft drinks are purple and why store-bought grapes taste nothing like this fake stuff.

Some natural flavors can be more dangerous than the artificial ones. Traces of cyanide can be found in almond flavor, or benzaldehyde, when derived from nature. That's why in movies, the smell of bitter of almonds on the victim is often linked to cyanide poisoning.

Raw soybeans, from which soy sauce is made, are also toxic. Industrial soy sauce, or the stuff you find in convenient to-go packets, is made from acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein, not boiled soybeans.

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