You Are What You Eat

This one’s for all you foodies out there.  The average American consumes somewhere around 2700 calories every day [1].  To put that number in perspective, a human consumes enough food energy to power a 100 Watt light bulb.  A family of four could power a desktop computer.  Your body functions by taking the chemical energy stored in the bonds of saccharides, proteins, and lipids (fats) and converting it into mechanical energy through a process called metabolism.  Micronutrients, such as vitamins and metal ions (iron, cobalt, sodium) are also introduced to the body through metabolic processes.

But not only does the body get much needed nutrients through eating, harmful substances can also be introduced in this way.  Toxic heavy metals can be introduced through contaminated ground water, or even fish.  Carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dicarbonyls, can be found in cooked meats and liquors, respectively [2].

With that in mind, let’s examine some of the hazardous chemical compounds you didn’t know where in many of the foods you consume daily.



Where it’s found: desserts, breads, baked goods, some perfumes, used as insecticide [7]

What it does: (2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal is a skin and respiratory irritant.  In high enough doses, this compound is acutely toxic [3].

(9Z)-Octadec-9-enoic acid


Where it’s found: most meats, including chicken, turkey, and beef, peanuts, and olives

What it does: In the blood stream, (9Z)-Octadec-9-enoic acid has been shown to induce severe respiratory failure and subsequent death by pulmonary edema in sheep [4].  It has furthermore been associated with increased incidence of breast cancer [5].



Where it’s found: many over the counter pain relievers and decongestants (Excedrin, DayQuil, others), chocolate, soda, tea, and coffee

What it does: First and foremost, 1,3,7-Trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione is teratogenic and mutagenic [6].  It is addictive and frequent consumption causes rapid physical dependence.  Furthermore, it is acutely toxic at certain doses, causing death by cardiac arrest.



Where it’s found: fruits of plants belonging to the Capsicum genus, including bell peppers and jalapenos, paprika

What it does: In the laboratory, 8-Methyl-N-vanillyl-trans-6-nonenamide is classified as a hazardous material and requires the use of a respirator for safe handling.  Contact with skin or eyes results in severe irritation and burning, accompanied by local swelling.  Inhalation results in respiratory tract irritation.  It is acutely toxic in sufficient doses, and may have neurotoxic effects [8].

I Have a Confession to Make…

Up to this point, this entire article has been quite deceptive.  Intentionally so.  But I wrote it that way for a good reason, I promise.  Time for a quick poll: how many of you Google’d any of the compounds I just listed?  If you did, you would have found that I gave the systematic IUPAC names for quite common chemicals.

  • (2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal is more commonly referred to cinnamaldehyde, and is the chief favorant in cinnamon.  Pure cinnamaldehyde, isolated from the essential oil of cinnamon tree bark, is a skin irritant; however, the cinnamaldehyde content in ground cinnamon is low enough for this to be a non-issue.  Furthermore, while it is technically toxic, the amount you would need to eat for negative effects to occur is huge – about half a pound for a healthy adult.
  • (9Z)-Octadec-9-enoic acid might be more recognizable as oleic acid, and makes up about 60% by mass of olive and canola oils.  It’s a very common fatty acid, usually found as a triglyceride in animal fat and many seeds and nuts.  Consumption of such monounsaturated fatty acids has been shown by trial after trial to have health benefits such as lower “bad” cholesterol.  While one study did show a link between high consumption of these fats and breast cancer, others have shown quite the opposite [9].  As for respiratory failure and pulmonary edema?  The researches induced these conditions in sheep intentionally by injecting pure oleic acid directly into their bloodstream.  So as long as you’re not shooting up olive oil, you should be alright there.
  • 1,3,7-Trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6(3H,7H)-dione might wake you up every morning, you probably just call it caffeine.  It is in fact mutagenic, hence why expectant mothers are instructed to avoid it.  However, the study demonstrating these properties in rats used injections of caffeine equivalent to a human dose of 100 cups of coffee.  This amount is incidentally very close to the median lethal dose in humans, which would of course be impossible to achieve by drinking coffee alone [10].
  • 8-Methyl-N-vanillyl-trans-6-nonenamide is what gives your chili its kick, but you most likely know it as capsaicin.  It’s in every chili pepper you cook with, from serranos to jalapenos to those absurd Indian ghost peppers.  Of course it’s an irritant, ever rubbed your eyes after eating something spicy?  The pure stuff, extracted and isolated from the peppers, is just much, much more potent.

So What’s the Point Here?

There seems to be some sort of pervasive fear of chemistry in society.  To a degree, I understand it; the 1950’s, gung-ho blind devotion to “Better Living Through Chemistry” brought us thalidomide and agent orange.  Carelessness brought us the tragic Bhopal incident in 1984.  It seems as though in a number of ways, chemical research has changed from “this is useful” to “this is dangerous” in the mind of the public.  I seldom go two days without seeing a link to some blog touting the horrors of synthetic food additives, GMO foods, or fluoride in the water.  The repeated chanting of “synthetic is bad, natural is good” ignores the fact that chemistry itself is indifferent.  I could just as easily have written this article from the opposite perspective: “All-Natural Drugs Found in Food.”  Hydrogen cyanide in Yuca plants, coniine in the hemlock bush, and amanitin in Amanita mushrooms, all of which are natural but deadly.

All science, let alone chemistry, requires a certain level of skepticism, without which true objectivity would be impossible.  A double-dose of skepticism may be necessary when dealing with things you ultimately put in your body.  With that being said, I hope the take-home message from this article is simply “think critically.”  Remember, any Joe (myself included) with some free time and $20 can set up a website and say whatever they want.  There is a vast amount of wonderfully useful information out there.  Unfortunately, there is also a huge quantity of misinformation mixed in with it.  As the 16th century German physician Paracelsus said, “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”



P.S. This post is a bit different from what I usually publish, so as always, I welcome feedback.  Leave me a comment or shoot me an email (  I’m also interested in hearing what you would like to read about in future posts.



One thought on “You Are What You Eat

  1. Pingback: More on “You are what you eat” | The Unemployed Chemist

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