5 Chemicals That Are in (Almost) Everything You Eat

5 Chemicals That Are in (Almost) Everything You Eat


If you live in a place with lots of people, decent internet, and maybe a 7/11
within walking distance… then you’re probably used to getting your food in certain familiar forms. Like this! Or this! Or maybe… this! Fewer and fewer of us these days get our sustenance in ways
that most of us would consider natural, right-off-the-branch or off-the-bone. Instead, especially in industrialized countries, a lot of our food is processed far away from where we actually eat it. So we’ve had to devise all kinds of
clever ways to make our food taste the way it’s supposed to taste, and look the way we expect it to look, and generally survive the journey to our tables intact. For about a 150 years the science of food chemistry has given us things like strawberry candy that’s the color of strawberries and soy based burger substitutes that
look and taste like meat instead of the mashed up edamame
that they basically are. Plus food chemistry has given us
many different ways to preserve food protecting us from the toxic fungi and bacteria that try to get to our meals before we do. Chemists accomplish all of these feats
with the use of additives. Substances that are used to affect any number
of food’s characteristics: from their color, to their purity, to their “mouth feel”. You’ve probably seen these additives
listed on nutrition labels. Some additives are completely synthetic, made by chemists from scratch. While others occur naturally, though you might be surprised by how
they’re grown and harvested. And, maybe you’re wary of having some of these
compounds in your food. Which is understandable, since none of us really knows what this means. But, for whatever it’s worth to you all of the 3000+ additives found in
food in the US are listed by the Food and Drug Administration
as GRAS or Generally Recognized As Safe. Now the most common kinds of additives, artificial flavorings, are really their own branch
of food science. In order to answer questions like “Why there’s no such thing as nacho cheese?” or “Why grape flavored stuff never actually
taste like grapes?” we’d have to get into the chemistry of taste how the chemical receptors in your nose and mouth work and how we can fool them. But, let’s save that for another time. For now, a lot of how food tastes is informed
by how it looks. So let’s start with the most widely used food coloring in the world: Red Dye Number 40 known in Europe as E129. People in the food industry like to refer to this particular compound as which makes it sound like some kind of sexy nail polish but considering that this is it’s full chemical name I can’t say that I blame them. Red Dye Number 40 is actually made from petroleum and it’s a kind of synthetic azo dye a compound that contains azo bonds, double bonds that form between two atoms of nitrogen, these bonds give the molecule a particular shape that reflects light from the orange to red part of the spectrum. But you might be thinking ‘there’s a lot of food that’s naturally red like red cabbage and beets, so why not just use whatever makes those things red and put that in your strawberry candy?’ Well those foods get their color from compounds called carotenoids and they are sometimes used as food coloring. But, carotenoids have a totally different structure
than azo dyes do they’re basically long chains of carbon & hydrogen
and they break down pretty easily specially when exposed to light and oxygen. So many food chemists use Red Dye Number 40 because it’s not only cheaper to make from scratch than it is to extract carotenoids from other food but the color also lasts longer on the shelf. Now whether your food looks like what it tastes like is one thing, but what about how it feels? The consistency of food is important people don’t usually wanna eat cheese that’s runny or chew on jerky that’s hard as a rock, but consistency is one of the harder qualities of food to control. That’s because the components of food products can often separate like in salad dressings or sauces and in other times manufacturers want to avoid using certain ingredients like animal fat or egg yolk usually to save some calories. So they need something to put in place of those ingredients to help hold the food together. And that, is where stabilizers come in stabilizers are compounds that chemically imitate fats, carbohydrates, or proteins to create a homogeneous mixtures of ingredients that otherwise wouldn’t stay mixed. It’s thanks to stabilizers that veggie burgers feel like hamburgers when you eat them and why pasta sauces pour out of the jar as a single liquid instead of separate globs of oils, water and vegetable puree. And, two of the most common stabilizers are naturally occurring though they’re not from the sources that you might expect. Xanthan Gum might sound like something you’d chew during algebra class but it’s not what the name suggests, chewing gum, like other true gums is derived from plants but xanthan gum is produced by bacteria which release it as a waste product during fermentation. Manufacturers basically farm the stuff by keeping a bunch of bacteria known as xanthomonas compestris in an oxygen free environment, as the germs respire, they secrete long complex sugars called polysaccharides which are then mixed with rubbing alcohol to get rid of the other wastes then they’re dried and ground into a fine powder this powdered starch is great at stabilizing food, because it basically adsorbs water molecules of xanthan gum attract molecules of water, which bind to it, creating a thick, gel like substance and this gooey medium is perfect for enhancing what food scientists call “mouth feel” So if you’re making a burger out of soy beans or a salad dressing without oil xanthan gum will fill in the spots where the fat used to be so your food feels like what your mouth is expecting. But hey, maybe you’re not so keen on bacterial excrement maybe you’d prefer seaweed. Another one of the most commonly used stabilizers in food is carrageenan, which is basically just ground up red seaweed a type of algae. Like xanthan gum carrageenan is a long, complex polysaccharide and it’s curvy helical structure makes it particularly good at binding not only with water, but also with proteins. This makes carrageenen a useful fat replacer in foods like ice creams, soy and almond milk, fake meats and other foods where proteins make up the bulk of the dish. And, it too is farmed on an industrial scale. Manufacturers just grow giant pools of red algae where they wash, boil and dry it until all that’s left, is the carrageenan starch which is ground into flour. So, not all food additives are synthetic and this is also true for some of the most common preservatives the chemicals that keep microbes and fungi from causing food to decay. For example, one of the most widely used preservatives is citric acid, the same stuff that makes lemons sour and oranges tangy. Citric acid is used to keep fruits from turning brown and canned foods from tasting can-y for the very same reason that it has a tart taste it’s acidity. In fruits and vegetables, citric acid blocks the natural enzymes found in plant tissues that cause them to spoil. The enzyme phenolase, for example, is what makes a slice of apple turn brown. Phenolase uses oxygen in the air to create a brown pigment called melanin which serves as sort of a protective coating over the apple’s damaged tissue. But citric acid lowers the pH in that tissue which makes the enzyme unable to function. And when phenolase is prevented from making a brown mush, fruits and vegetables can stay longer, even if they’ve been sliced, or if they get damaged during shipping. Citric acid also has the extra benefit of bonding easily with free-floating ions of metal So it and other acids are often added to canned foods. That way, any stray atoms of metals from the can will bind to the citric acid, and not to the food inside, a process known as chelation. So since citric acid occurs in lemons, oranges, and anything else citrus-y, making it must be easy. Just squeeze a bunch of fruit and ship it out to the old food factory. Except, not really. The fact is, there are literally not enough lemons and limes in the world to produce all of the citric acid that food manufacturers need. And extracting the acid from fruit is actually really complicated, and expensive. So citric acid is mass-produced much like xanthan gum and carrageenan are, but instead of being pooped out by bacteria, or mulched out of seaweed, it’s excreted by mold. A black fungus known as aspergillus, which ironically enough is the same stuff that grows on spoiled food, produces citric acid when it metabolizes sugar in a low oxygen environment. So food companies just spread out a bunch of the fungus on a bed of molasses and let it ferment. As the mold metabolizes the sugar, the citric acid is captured, and dried into a powder. But the chemistry is a little bit different when it comes to what’s probably the world’s most commonly used preservative: Sodium Benzoate. The active ingredient here is really benzoic acid, a naturally occurring acid that’s found in things like plumes, and cranberries In large enough amounts, benzoic acid can kill fungi like yeast and many kinds of bacteria by blocking the enzymes that they need to survive. So it’s really handy for preserving foods that are already a little bit acidic on their own. Like sauces, dressings, juices, jellies, and condiments. But, benzoic acid doesn’t dissolve in water, so food chemists have to stash it inside something that does so they make a salt of benzoic acid by reacting it with sodium hydroxide — aka lye or caustic soda — to make sodium benzoate Now that’s not something that occurs naturally, and some consumers are very wary of sodium benzonate and other compounds like it for that reason. There’s no denying that additives can have their downsides. Sodium benzoate, for example, has been found to react with ascorbic acid — aka Vitamin C — to produce benzene, a hydrocarbon that’s known to cause cancer in a random sampling of 200 kinds of soft drinks sold around the U.S., from 2005 to 2006 the Food and Drug Administration found that nine of the soft-drink brands contained levels of benzene that were above the federal safety threshold, of 5 parts per billion It’s worth noting that all of these drinks have since a bit reformulated. But some naturally occurring compounds have been restricted too, the FDA has warned against using some baby food supplements that contain zanthan gum, for instance, because it might lead to potentially dangerous clumping in babies’ intestines. As for red dye #40, it’s been used in the US for more than 40 years but it’s banned in four European countries because some studies suggest that there’s a link between the dye and hyperactivity in children. A link that the EU and the FDA haven’t established in their own research. So, if you live a world where your food looks like this, then odds are there’s seaweed in your soymilk, and petroleum byproducts in your candy. Thanks to food chemistry, your eyes, mouth and stomach. will never know the difference Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you wanna help keep us making videos like this, check out patreon.com/SciShow and don’t forget to go to youtube.com/SciShow and subscribe.

50 thoughts on “5 Chemicals That Are in (Almost) Everything You Eat

  1. It would be good if you mentioned that stabilizers like Xantham gum and Carrageenan are problematic for maintaining healthy gut bacteria balance, which makes it a good idea to avoid these things.

  2. Good yes. But now make a truly.informative video about Monsanto – their DNA splicing, restructuring and their real intention behind doing alk of this.. DEPOPULATION. What ? "they would never do that, they wouldn't forcefully change our own DNA structure – by monopolising all seed patents of the Global food Industry etc. so as to then feed us with that crap!" – would they…
    Research is always best. Get on track man. Be real. Peace love. 🤔😳🤔😣😑🙏

  3. GRAS in America: Generally Recognized As Safe.
    Gras in France: Fat. Or a black-powder rifle from the late 19th century that was replaced by smokeless powder cartridges.

    Don't eat gunpowder.

  4. OK, LISTEN, I DON'T MIND EATING NATURAL. IF IT TASTED GOOD. OK? SO, I"M GOING TO CONTINUE WITH EATING PROCESSED FOODS. I'M SORRY FOLKS, BUT THAT"S THE BEST I CAN DO. OK? I DO EAT AT SUBWAY A FEW TIMES A WEEK. BUT THEN, I MUST HAVE MY HOT CHOCOLATE. I DID GIVE UP COFFEE YEARS AGO, OK?

  5. In the uk, it used to be blue (smarties) colouring that caused hyperactivity in children…. I find this funny 😋

  6. Our bodies…thanks to modern science and chemistry…will never know the difference?

    Obesity epidemic much?

  7. and since every man is getting prostate cancer at one point of their life we should look at those things that are everywhere.

  8. I think that, its okay to have chemicals in our food, because we preserve the environment and well, humans consume anything and everything in large portions, so we save some species. But at the same time…self preservation is also something that is favoured by the general public. As comforting as it is to know that I'm saving the environment, I would also like to make sure, my body isn't suffering. Texture and taste, all good, but how exactly is my body affected. How does my body break down these chemicals, and what does it do to them! GRAS actually doesn't make me feel to safe about the food I consume.

    Also half of the food that we consume…we don't need. Every animal lives simple lives with simple diets…except us! It's one of those "we did it cause we could….not because we should" kind of things. As much as we love Cheetos, Oreos, Pringles, Doritos, movies popcorn etc. We don't need them in our diets. We don't NEED half the crap we eat. And I'm sure if we stick to the essentials…we save a lot, in general, less factories from being built, less unnecessary chemicals in our bodies, less money being spent…so idk. This video did give me some kind of relief that I am more aware of what goes in our food. But consumption…I'm still a bit skeptical about. But great vids., Love them, keep making me smarter cause school isn't doing their one job…making my dumbass smarter! Love Scishow!!!

  9. I really love SciShow video's. But will science ever be able to explain why your hair is only partially dyed? 🙂 Seriously, i have been wondering this for a long time…

  10. I love how i know what Adsorbs means from a previous video of yours so when you said it here i felt smart lol.

  11. More garbage science for the cotton-candy crowd.  It is brought to you by the same crew of annoying, pseudo-glib script readers.

  12. Artificial banana is the worst, and from what I understand, it's surprisingly close to the flavor bananas had before Panama disease that almost caused the Gros Michel to go extinct all together. If that's true, I guess I'm kind of lucky, although I'd never wish the extinction of a food source. Still, I'm a Cavendish guy all the way. Cloned fruit is bananas.

  13. Carageenan was used in a study where it caused pinhole leisions in the intestines of lab rats. I don't put it in my body.

  14. at least in my country and I think not only the most used preservative is acetic acid because it's the cheapest and the most harmless existing preservative we know of and in top of that it doesn't have terrible taste

  15. Don't want to eat cheese that's runny? Speak for yourself–I like cheese that gurgles and squishes and smells like dead fishes.

  16. Something overlooked a lot, the most common food preservatives are actually Salt (Sodium Carbonate) and Sugar (Sucrose). Also, both are considered flavor enhancers.

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