Should You Care About Ingredient Pronunciation? (No)

I was listening to Gimlet Media’s newest release, Mystery Show,(1)Delightful, charming, and funny! when an ad for KIND bars came on in the middle. These are the snacks with the sleek packaging and vibrant colors that I think taste pretty good! The advertisement revolved around the host, Starlee Kine, listing off one of their all-“pronounceable” ingredients each episode going forward.

This branding disappointed me. When I go on KIND’s website, I see they’ve even trademarked the phrase, “ingredients you can see & pronounce®“. They also say this:

“We believe if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body.”

That’s the same line we hear from the Food Babe, who is at least getting her necessary volume of backlash. It’s pandering to naturalism, preying on fears of “scary” substances just because they have scientific names. It supports the trend of misinformation and misunderstanding of what goes in our food and its safety.

I don’t think this “pronunciation” rule is intended to be absolute, but rather a heuristic. Still, the flaws are numerous to using this methodology. Some of it may be obvious, but it’s all worth bearing out.

Does the complexity of the name of an ingredient have anything to do with its safety or nutrition?

I know the answers that “feel” right, like that natural ingredients from the Earth should be preferred over man-made concoctions. Everyone understands the allure of fruits and vegetables grown, picked, and served with minimal involvement of humans to influence the process. We’re accustomed to associating humanity’s introduction to nature or wildlife with destruction, pollution, or corruption. I myself remember being strongly influenced by the “save the rainforest” film FernGully as a child. We like to imagine nature as pure and untainted.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and I think everyone should be! We should care very deeply about keeping our planet and the life on it safe and flourishing while humanity grows in number and influence.

I can’t be an environmentalist that kowtows to scientific ignorance, though. I will follow the science and evidence where it leads, even if that’s against a lot of popular opinion. The methodology of relying on facts is central to who I am, and that will not be replaced by an ideology.

Appealing to the simplicity of an ingredient name is sacrificing scientific understanding for what purports to be food safety. Chemistry teacher James Kennedy posted the following image on his blog to illustrate this problem:

Ingredient_Banana

How far do you get down the ingredient list before you trip over something you can’t pronounce? “Histidine” made me pause!

Everything, including basic fruits like bananas, comprises many different chemicals and compounds. The field of science has made great strides in identifying, labeling, and understanding each and every one of these “ingredients” listed above. Just because we don’t list all of those individual acids and carbon chains in a fruit doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Just because chemists use an intricate naming system doesn’t mean we should be afraid of them. (Kennedy has a full set of twelve examples if you’re curious for more!)

The fact of the matter is that there’s no hard line between “natural” and “artificial” or “unnatural”. All chemicals that make up additives, colorings, and artificial flavors came from somewhere on Earth, just like the chemicals that formed and grew into that banana. Humans had a hand in making them, yes, but there is nothing inherently bad or different about a process occurring in a laboratory versus without human supervision. (We also heavily influence the continued growth of our modern-day Cavendish bananas, anyway.)

Similarly, while chemicals are created that are harmful to humans (at certain doses) or the environment (in certain quantities and uses), there exist all sorts of harmful substances and plant life in nature. Dr. Amy Tuteur at The Skeptical OB highlights a fantastic example of the risk of blind naturalism with an image, shared in those circles, of a poisonous mushroom!

Ingredient_Mushroom

It takes science to identify that dangerous fungus (portrayed as food). That same science creates chemicals used to make food easier to package and transport, to lengthen shelf life, to make it taste better, and even to be be more nutritious. We don’t just harm the environment when we try to work with it; we often find helpful, ingenuitive solutions to problems humanity (or other life forms) are facing.

I strongly feel that the more familiar the public becomes with the true definition of a chemical substance(2)A form of matter that has constant chemical composition and characteristic properties!, the more it understands the ubiquity of different elements, compounds, ions, and alloys both human-made and pre-existing, the less that fear of pronunciation and pandering to misinformation will occur in our culture.

Right now it’s at a high with Chipotle, Panera, and Whole Foods quickly coming to mind. Scientific literacy will win out in the long run, though, as access to information and education continues to grow. In the meantime, individuals can open a dialog with those around them about these issues and ask important questions about whether what feels right about naturalism is truly correct and whether that’s how want to make decisions and live our lives.

Let’s not let scientific ignorance make our food choices for us.

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