A Misleading Ad Involving Chemistry

The ad I will be attacking is an old one. I first saw it in Scientific American in the early 1980s. But I bring it up 35 years later because recently, blogs, tweets, chemistry educational websites and newsletters have been posting graphics of fruit-components, listing them the way ingredients are outlined in store-bought foods. It was exactly the type of image used by that misleading ad. First the recent graphics:

from https://jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/ingredients-of-an-all-natural-banana/ It also appeared in Chem13News in the past school year.
Before I get critical, I can’t help contain my enthusiasm for discovering through these graphics that the two most common amino acids in both blueberries and bananas are the same: glutamic and aspartic acid. Asparagine is also common in other fruits. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jsfa.2740080304/abstract

In most cases the purpose is educational, but especially in the case of the blueberry tweet, the message that one can possibly take away from such graphics is, “Well, a fruit is full of chemical compounds, so I should not be afraid of other chemical components in man-prepared foods.” But what we need to be reminded of is that although most food additives are safe, that’s not the case for all compounds that have ended up in fruit,  prepared foods or in the environment as a result of agriculture, plastics or other sources. Vigilance and research are vital.

So here is the shameless advertisement:orangeMonsanto

All foods, even natural ones, are made up of chemicals. 

Let’s stop using the term “chemical” when we mean additive.  All matter that we know of consists of atoms. Often the atoms form chemical compounds. Otherwise they remain free elements, which are sometimes charged(ions). A fruit has ions, along with a few uncharged atoms and many compounds, most of which are absorbed from the environment (example, water, which incidentally the ad forgets to list as orange’s primary ingredient). It can also include pesticides added by man, compounds with a variety of concentrations and biological properties. Or it can include nitrates and phosphates, which could leach out of soil and lead to eutrophication.  Is it a coincidence that Monsanto chose an orange for this ad at a time when they were feeling pressure from the revelation that the Agent Orange herbicide they had manufactured was contaminated with dioxin?

But natural foods don’t have to list their ingredients.

In fact some argue that markets and grocery stores should be required to list them. Consumers have a right to know, given that fruits are being imported from different geographical areas and that there’s a variety of fertilizing and pest-treating techniques used by growers and industry. In general, there is a growing concern by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, that regulatory agencies do not assess the cumulative effect of the ensemble of additives that we are exposed to.

In fact the ordinary orange is a miniature chemical factory.

What a crude, unscientific analogy! Biosynthesis in a fruit, leaf or animal produces far more compounds than a factory with a far more sophisticated blueprint, that’s far more in tune with its environment, and creating far less waste, if any. That’s not to mention that oranges are time-tested to be safe, given that hundreds of generations have been eating them.

And the good old potato contains arsenic among its more than 150 ingredients.

For starters, potatoes concentrate arsenic in their leaves and peels. How much arsenic is contained in the entire potato depends on where it’s grown. The concentration can be elevated due to industrial contamination or from volcanic emissions. Even without the influence of the latter, different soils in the same country can lead to a wide range of arsenic concentration, from 0.07(probably irrelevant) to 1.36mg/kg (of concern) in Bangladesh potatoes.

And man-made foods often provide more nutrition at a lower cost than natural foods.

There’s no evidence for this notion. Many fruits are rich in vitamins and fiber, and despite their moderate sugar content, they have lower glycemic indices than processed counterparts. And the plums and cherries I grow don’t cost me anything except for the indirect cost of bought food-scraps that serve as compost.

Monsanto: Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.

It’s a slogan used in an attempt to counter the idea that without releasing large quantities of questionable and dangerous compounds into the environment, life would be better off.

2 thoughts on “A Misleading Ad Involving Chemistry

Add yours

  1. When I read https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/general-science/chemical-confusion which contains an introduction and a link to this article, I was left wondering why it was not addressing the purpose of my essay. That’s what introductions usually do. Before commenting here, I contacted the author, Joe Schwarcz, but he became defensive and skirted the issue. To place the interaction in context, I had been complaining about the fact that McGill’s OSS page had listed ACSH as its first “recommended science site”. For those unfamiliar with ACSH, it has a very long history of being a consumer front group. He later linked this web site as well, but that’s no consolation. Out of all the outstanding science science sites for the layman created by government, museums, and universities why link to ACSH and my site? A few weeks later he listed sites in alphabetical order. Still no consolation.


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