Lamps: Foods are not dangerous solely because they are ‘chemical’ or ‘unnatural’


Joseph Lamps, Columnist

At Northwestern, I often see people supporting the popular view that any foods containing “chemical” or “unnatural” ingredients are inherently dangerous. However, this is a harmful stance because it perpetuates falsehoods about nutrition and food production.

One issue is the belief that unnatural substances are unhealthy, which incorrectly affects people’s choices about artificial sweeteners. It is popularly believed that aspartame in particular causes cancer, headaches or other health problems. This belief is perpetuated by organizations attempting to sustain this unsubstantiated claim. For example, for just about any Google search on aspartame, is the first result, which is an unscientific site claiming that aspartame is “the most dangerous substance on the market that is added to foods.” However, according to the American Cancer Society and the Food and Drug Administration, all evidence suggests aspartame is safe.

Fears about sweeteners are often extended to all chemicals, culminating in the adage, “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.” This is a piece of advice with no logical basis. There is no reason to believe that if the English language happens to include a simple or colloquial name for a substance, it is safer to eat than a substance with a more complex and scientific name. Undoubtedly, there are many chemical substances with complicated names that are unsafe to eat. However, dismissing all chemical substances discovered in labs as unsafe will at best lead to inconvenience when one has to pick around foods containing artificial chemicals and at worst negatively affect one’s health when opting for foods that contain more “natural” ingredients, such as choosing sugary drinks with real sugar over less sugary diet soda.

Another manifestation of people’s fear of unnatural food is the debate surrounding genetically modified foods. We live in a world with seven billion people, a number predicted to reach nearly ten billion by about 2050. This is a two thousand-fold increase from a few thousand years ago. Feeding a growing population is hard, and about 800 million people currently do not have enough to eat. Moreover, progress on reducing hunger could be stymied in the future by climate change despite remarkable gains over recent decades. Genetically modified foods are a great scientific solution to help improve our ability to efficiently grow more nutritious food. There is no evidence that genetically modified organisms are dangerous to eat — in fact, the United States FDA has confirmed that GMOs are as safe as non-GMO food. This makes sense intuitively, as humans have been genetically modifying food for millennia through artificial selection. Virtually everything we eat has been heavily modified in order to taste better, produce more edible material and be grown on a large scale. Given that modification through selective breeding is widely accepted, modifying genes in laboratories should not scare us.

To be sure, I am not claiming that all foods with “artificial chemicals” such as aspartame are healthy, only that these substances in themselves do not pose health risks.

GMOs are a promising solution for the world’s economically disadvantaged people, so it is worrying to observe politicians speak negatively about them. For example, Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party presidential nominee, says in her platform that she plans to “put a moratorium on GMOs… until they are proven safe.” Instead of fearing GMOs because they are unnatural, people who care about issues such as climate change and the well being of people in poorer areas of the world, often the people supporting candidates such as Stein, should be the strongest proponents of GMO research and use.

To believe that a type of food is dangerous solely because it is unnatural is an example of fallacious thinking. There is no inherent link between natural food and good food, and the popular belief that this link exists is dangerous for two reasons. First, it causes us to make poor decisions about our health. Second, it misguides our efforts solving some of the world’s largest and most pressing problems.

Joseph Lamps is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.