We are currently living in a culture of chemephobia; people are afraid of chemicals. The word “chemical” strikes fear into the hearts of consumers, conjuring up images of lab-coated scientists creating sinister powders and liquids for the sole benefit of the “evil” corporations for which they're employed.
In short, chemicals are getting a bad rap.
Chances are, if you shop at a health food store of any kind, you have seen food, water, and cleaning products advertised as “chemical free.”
I am here to tell you that this is physically impossible. Everything you have ever put in your mouth (or haven’t put in your mouth) has a chemical composition (made up of atoms) and is thus a chemical. Water is a chemical. Air is a mixture of chemicals. Food contains some of the most complex chemical systems known to man.
Seriously, orange juice is insanely complicated, chemically speaking.
So, it is particularly irksome to see food labeled “chemical free” or hear people talk about how they detest chemicals in their food. Because, they don’t; they love chemicals in their food. Food is made entirely of chemicals; You have never eaten anything that was not comprised of chemicals.
Now, I know that some of you may argue that “they obviously don’t mean those chemicals; they mean synthetic chemicals or they are simply railing against processed food.”
I would argue that they are not using their words correctly. Terms are important, and when we use the wrong words for things, they begin to lose their meaning and we, as a population, become stupider. To quote Missing Persons: What are words for if no one listens anymore?
Now that my little rant is out of the way, we are free to celebrate the amazing chemicals in our food that are responsible for so many delicious flavors and aromas.
Water is perhaps the best example of a compound that sounds much scarier when you use its proper, chemical name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” In fact, a couple of Florida radio DJs caused mass panic about a year ago when they did an April Fool’s Day show alerting the public to the dihygrogen monoxide that was pouring out of their taps.
Perhaps the most important chemical in our life, water is what makes up around 70% of our bodies. And though plain water may sound boring, it’s anything but; it is a truly fascinating and strange substance in that when it freezes, it does so from the top down. No other substance (that I know of, there may be a strange one that I haven’t heard of yet) does this.
So not only is it super important to all life on this planet, it is also super fun to study.
This wonderful organic (meaning containing carbon, not pesticide-free) chemical is what gives cinnamon its characteristic flavor and aroma. It is a pale, yellow liquid that is found in the bark of the cinnamon tree.
It’s one of a group of compounds called “The Phenolics,” meaning it possess a closed ring of six carbon atoms and at least one fragment of a water molecule (one oxygen and one hydrogen)(McGee, 2004).
I don’t think I need to tell you how great cinnamaldehyde is; whether added to sweet or savory foods, it adds depth, complexity, and a spiciness that really rounds out almost any dish.
Do you love salt and vinegar potato chips? Of course you do! They are fantastic! You have acetic acid to thank for their distinctive, biting tang. It is an organic acid, containing only two carbons, and smells just like vinegar, because vinegar is mostly comprised of acetic acid and water.
Acetic Acid may be one of my favorite chemicals ever; it adds brightness and (duh) acidity to every food it encounters. I may like it a little too much though. I have been known to drink my fair share of apple cider vinegar.
Who doesn’t love vanilla? I know some people don’t like chocolate (heathens) but I’ve never met a person who actively disliked vanilla, though if such a person exists, they probably hate puppies and kissing as well.
Vanillin is another phenolic, possibly proving that phenolics are single-handedly responsible for delicious baked goods. I mean, think of the churro; it’s got cinnamon and vanilla flavor going for it, meaning we have at least two (probably more) phenolics to thank for this tasty treat of fried dough.
Let’s get pungent. Piperine is the chemical found in black peppercorns that rides the fine line between pleasure and pain. It’s a more complex molecule than any of the ones we’ve covered so far and it works by causing temporary irritation in the mouth, making it tenderer and thus more sensitive to other sensations (McGee, 2004).
I could go on and on like this for days. There are so many amazing chemicals in your food that make eating a pleasurable experience. So the next time you hear someone proclaim “I just hate all the chemicals in food these days!” please school them. School them hard (but nicely) so that this culture of chemephobia will dissipate. Because once you understand that chemicals are all around you (and inside you) you can correctly distinguish the “bad” from the “good” and can make informed decisions about what you choose to eat. Knee-jerk reactions to the word “chemical” aren’t doing anyone any favors.
Now, let’s use one these amazing chemicals in a tasty experiment, kids! For those of you that salt and vinegar everything, we are going to make sodium acetate, the main ingredient used in making salt and vinegar everything.
(procedure adapted from Instructables)
Safety warning: This can be a little irritating to the eyes and is definitely smelly. Use caution.
You will need:
-White vinegar (I only had apple cider and thought it would be interesting, and it was, but it won’t get as dry as white due to the presence of other compounds.)
-Microwave safe vessel (such as a Pyrex measuring cup)
1. Add a heaping spoonful of baking soda to your reaction vessel. Slowly add the vinegar; if you add it too quickly it will bubble over. Stir after each addition.
2. Keep adding small increments until the solution no longer fizzes, even after stirring; this indicates the completion of your acid base reaction, leaving sodium acetate in a solution of water.
3. Next, you must drive off the water. I heated mine in the microwave for a total of about twelve minutes consisting of two five-minute increments followed by two increments of one minute at a time. Continue to boil the solution in this fashion until you start to hear popping sounds; you should still have a little bit of liquid.
4. You now have a super-saturated solution of sodium acetate (hooray!). If you disrupt it by blowing across the top, crystals should form.
5. Allow your solution to cool to room temperature and scoop the remaining gel into a bowl or funnel lined with a coffee filter. The filter will help absorb any residual moisture.
6. Transfer your mostly dry powder to a bowl and break it up with the back of a spoon. If it is still a little damp, you can let it dry some more on additional coffee filters.
You now have delicious sodium acetate, ready to be sprinkled on anything you can imagine!
A note on the type of vinegar: white vinegar will give you the truest powder. Though apple cider vinegar had a wonderful flavor (notes of molasses and caramel along with acidity) the sugars and other compound seem to caramelize, resulting in a powder that never quite dries. It’s tasty: just hard to sprinkle.
Missed an installment of Savor the Science? You can read them all here. Got a food science question? Ask Claire in the comments section below!
Further reading: Harold McGee. 1984. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (New York: Scribner), 390-395