The New York Times recently published an opinion piece highlighting the work of an Australian high school chemistry teacher (1). The teacher, James Kennedy, created posters of different foods showcasing their chemical constituents by displaying them as a list of ingredients, much like what one would see on a processed food label (2).
For example, here is a poster illustrating the naturally occurring chemicals within a blueberry (click to enlarge).
The goal, according to Kennedy, was to visually represent chemicals as an introduction to an organic chemistry course. Further, he hoped to alleviate his students’ fears regarding chemicals by showing that nature is teeming with naturally occurring chemicals that are more complex than anything found in the lab.
As a former student of organic chemistry, I find his posters to be quite fascinating. However, as a student of nutrition, wild food, and the natural processes of life, I can also see where his message has the potential to be misinterpreted by those who accept his work at face value.
Let me explain.
There are many more chemicals found within a blueberry, in addition to the ones listed.
True, the naturally occurring chemicals listed on the poster are probably found in a (cultivated) blueberry. Kennedy derived his list from nutrition analyses, botany books, and peer-reviewed chemical analyses. But does it represent all the chemicals found in a blueberry? Most likely not. Researchers are constantly discovering and isolating new chemicals to the extent that technology allows.
There is no such thing as a static list in nature.
In 50 years, perhaps the list of chemicals in a blueberry will be twice as comprehensive. An improvement in technology might allow for this to happen, but so too can the ebb and flow of nature. Nothing is static; everything is changing and evolving as time (from our perspective) moves forward. Who’s to say that the list of chemicals in a blueberry today will be exactly the same 50 years from now?
As an organism is exposed to various conditions and stresses, its chemical composition will surely be altered, at least in quantity. For example, organic grape juices have been shown to possess higher values of polyphenols and resveratrol (antioxidants) compared to conventional grape juices (3). Can the quantity of certain chemicals in an organism be manipulated so much that they are reduced to zero? Perhaps this is a hypothesis worth exploring.
Chemicals in nature are found in a proportion favorable to the organism.
They are not found in isolation. Blueberries contain the flavor chemical, 3-methylbutyraldehyde, and it functions just fine in conjunction with all the other constituents within the fruit. This doesn’t mean, however, that a synthetically created 3-methylbutyraldehyde, operating outside its natural matrix, acts the same way.
Now, I know Kennedy is not suggesting that an isolated chemical found within a blueberry is safe for human consumption outside its complex system, but this theory is well accepted elsewhere.
For example, the pharmaceutical industry derives many of its drugs from the isolation of plant chemicals. The opium poppy has been used traditionally as food and medicine by various groups, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Codeine, an opiate chemical found within the opium poppy, has been isolated and used conventionally to relieve coughs and pain.
It is not without its side effects, however, as codeine has been known to cause vomiting, memory loss, and depression. Removed from its natural system within the opium poppy, it can be quite detrimental.
A more telling example would be the relationship between cocaine and the coca leaf. Coca leaves, for thousands of years, have been chewed by various South American indigenous groups for stimulation and enhanced cognition. Cocaine, an alkaloid isolated from the plant, is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that can cause life-threatening hyperthermia, arrhythmias, and death.
Bottom line: a chemical within a complex system is vastly different than its isolated counterpart.
Food is more than the sum total of its chemicals.
The list of ingredients in a blueberry hints at reductionist philosophy, implying that a complex system can be understood completely in terms of its individual parts. Surely we cannot believe that a blueberry is solely Kennedy’s list of chemical ingredients. If this were to be true, then we should be able to recreate the blueberry simply by blending those ingredients together.
Obviously, this isn’t likely to happen. There is much more to a blueberry (or to any organism for that matter) than its chemical composition alone. Conventional science is useful in isolating some components within a living system, but lacks the ability to fully describe the essence that brings it to life.
Overall, Kennedy’s work to introduce his students to the world of organic chemistry is compelling, and he makes a great point: chemicals are not simply the products of science experiments performed in the lab. They are found in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat.
His posters do a good job of highlighting this. Remember, however, that chemical composition is only a fraction of what is known about an organism.
Nature is full of naturally occurring compounds that work synergistically to assist, in part, in creating complex arrangements. In turn, these structures work to create even larger systems ad infinitum.
Such is the holographic nature of our universe, a beautiful and intricate system that cannot be reduced to a single list of ingredients.
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Hi – just found your blog. Is it possible to subscribe via email? I can’t seem to find where to do that.
Thank you for the comment, and thank you for reminding me to add an email button! It should now be found at the bottom of any post (including the homepage). Check and see if it works for you. Best wishes. -Adam
stumbled across this as i smashed a ton of blueberries…he forgot the element ‘Yum’ or Ym ❤
Perhaps that is also his point. An ingredients list for a “food is more than the sum total of its chemicals.” (Thanks for the verbiage.) Consumers are fearing foods or not eating them because of the terrible unpronounceable chemicals in them. Yet they don’t know and don’t take the time to find out what the scary sounding thing is and why it’s in the product. Chemical names sound like the thing is made in a lab and should be avoided when educated decision making is more key. If one didn’t know the information was about blueberries and was just given the chemical listings they may say they’d never eat that. Then ask if they’d like a blueberry instead, I’d wager they’d pop that in their mouth no questions asked barring a preexisting dislike for blueberries. Same goes for the satirical ban on dihydrogen monoxide due to its inherent corrosive properties and potential for death if it is breathed into the lungs. Petitions were signed to eradicate it from our food supply. All because people heard the scary sounding chemical name and that it could kill you. Of course, try to ban it by its common name, water, and everyone would think you were crazy. Common sense tells you that water rusts metal and does all sorts of damage and will most likely kill you if you breathe enough of it in your lungs. It’s called drowning. So, I took the posters to mean that just about anything written up solely on chemical composition is off putting to a lay person but to take the time to get the whole picture before making assumptions about the product.
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