Chemophobia and its adherents

One of my favorite posts on Derek Lowe’s In The Pipeline blog is the classic Eight Toxic Foods, in which he eviscerates* a sloppily-thrown together BuzzFeed listicle of additives, dyes, and stabilizers found in processed food. Derek addresses a frequent theme of unaccountable clickbait propagating through social media, chemophobia: an aversion to any substance with a synthetic, complicated name. It’d be a mistake to think Derek is defending brominated vegetable oil or azodicarbonamide, which don’t really mind if you think they’re scary. All chemicals are toxic at certain thresholds, even water. The take home message is don’t be afraid of some chemical simply because you don’t know what it is: find out what it does, how much of it is in the food you eat, and whether that level is OK. Too often we delegate these responsibilities to agents that are not acting in our personal interest.

In preparing to become a subject matter expert AKA person with a blog, I visited my local library and got a pile of health and nutrition books. A few fell under the category of “oppo research”, none moreso than the misleading scare tome Toxin Toxout written by two Canadian environmentalists**. Bless their hearts, they encapsulated everything I’m against just four pages in, after imparting the number (553! Is that a lot?) of synthetic chemicals found circulating in a sample of Americans:

“The results of being exposed to one synthetic chemical are worrisome enough, but the mixture of toxic chemicals in our bodies, all at once, has a more profound and complex effect than the chemical industry would like us to believe.”

Reading this immediately brought to mind Derek’s post. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, they’re positing that synergism increases the individual toxicity of chemicals, which, sure…but which ones? They rattle off a few of their least-favorite pesticides and flame retardants, but don’t expect them to systematically inform the reader what those chemicals are or what levels of those chemicals were found and how that relates to their toxicities and what synergisms propagate that toxicity. Nah. These things don’t matter to the authors because they bog down their narrative. They want you to be afraid of the big numbers of long words, brought to you by the chemical industry. Spoiler: they also do not divulge that profound and complex effect produced by mixtures of toxic chemicals.

I also thought of this review written by Bruce Ames thirty years ago. You may not know Bruce, but one of his many claims to fame is the Ames test, which quickly and cheaply can identify the DNA-damaging potential of a sample compound. This is a guy who cares a lot about safety and toxicity and thinks about its mechanisms in his work. I will quote a few choice passages from the 1987 review:

“Extrapolation from the results of rodent cancer tests done at high doses to effects on humans exposed to low doses is routinely attempted by regulatory agencies when formulating policies attempting to prevent future cancer.”

“The idea that nature is benign and that evolution has allowed us to cope perfectly with the toxic chemicals in the natural world is not compelling.”

“Obviously, prudence is desirable with regard to pollution, but we do need to work out some balance between chemophobia with its high costs to the national wealth, and sensible management of industrial chemicals.”

Bruce is no industry shill, and his points still stand thirty years hence. We exist in a world of chemicals, are made up of chemicals, and are constantly working to establish homeostasis while interacting with the natural and synthetic chemicals around us. We haven’t yet invented more potent toxins than nature has in castor beans and rosary peas. Importantly, toxicity is relative and is a factor of how well the chemical is absorbed, its half-life in the body, and its mechanism of toxicity. Consider looking up these metrics for the synthetic additives to your favorite junk food if you’re concerned. Stay tuned for future blog posts on specific food additives.


If chemophobia simply caused us to be more discretionary with our diet, it may not be worth ranting against. Is it really so bad to vilify synthetic additives, even out of ignorance, if the net result is that people eat less processed food? Maybe if that was happening in reality, but chemophobia isn’t just a tactic of Canadians and Buzzfeed. Companies like Panera and Chipotle (and many, many others) have deployed chemophobia as a marketing strategy. I find these tactics infuriating not only because they’re often inaccurate (see links), but these companies are also incredibly subversive in driving you to their products…which, in the case of the aforementioned, are fast food. You aren’t getting any “fresh” or “clean” menu items at either Panera or Chipotle that are healthy. While we’re at it, add food manufacturers to the aforementioned that abuse chemophobia for fun and profit. Most packaged foods display tantalizing taglines about being “a great source of vitamin X” or “organic, all natural, GMO-free”. The packaging draws our eyes towards the supermarket shelves by making a spirited case for adding it to our shopping cart, and we often oblige.

When commercials and billboards and other ads are vying for your stomach, consider the feedback loop that your individual food choices make on your overall diet. Chipotle has built their brand around being the “healthy” fast food place, where you can feel good about tearing into your 1400-calorie behemoth burrito each and every time because there aren’t any GMOs in it. Frankly, I’d rather tear into a terribly unhealthy Arby’s sandwich slathered in Arby’s sauce and horseradish because I’m not kidding myself and it’ll be at least a year before I do it again unless my mortal coil runs out. Everyone has an agenda, and mine is to tell you this: don’t let scaremongers and brands tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat; figure that out on your own. Being here and reading this is a good start.

*It’s so overused, but in this specific context I couldn’t help myself. Plus, Derek did get into the guts of the listicle and rip it apart, so…

**Please don’t read this very bad book.