In a debut podcast, Sam Howarth discusses with chemophobia research-enthusiast and chemistry teacher, James Kennedy, the evolution of fearing chemicals and the people who are driving it behind the scenes.
Sam Howarth is a self-taught nutrition and fitness enthusiast – a fanatic learned through trial and error over 3 years of research and over 10 years of personal struggles with food and body image.
In the podcast, we talk about chemophobia, its origins and the money that keeps it alive.
In 2014, I created a series of infographics to help convey this message. Corn, for example, used to be a spindly grass-like plant called teosinte, which Native Americans farmed and bred through artificial selection until it resembled the yellow corn of today.
Corn has been bred via artificial selection to be larger, sweeter and more colourful than its ancestral plant, teosinte.
In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. In the 15th century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds, the corn evolved even further to become larger and multi-coloured. Corn no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all.
Watermelon isn’t ‘natural’
Watermelon began as a hard, bitter fruit the size of a walnut. It caused inflammation and had an unpalatable bitter taste. Thousands of years of artificial selection (unintentional genetic engineering) have resulted in a modern watermelon that bears no resemblance to its African ancestor. Modern (artificial) watermelons are sweeter, juicier, more colourful and easier to grow than their ancestral varieties.
Peaches aren’t natural, either
Peaches used to be hard, cherry-sized fruits with giant pips. Like corn and watermelon, peaches became larger, sweeter and juicier over thousands of years of inadvertent genetic engineering.
Bananas, wheat, pigs and all farmed animals and plants are not natural
Before agriculture, carrots were white and spindly. Wheat was tall and scrawny with little calorific value. Apples were tiny and sour with giant pips (like crab-apples today). Strawberries were tiny, bananas had stones in them, and pigs were viscous creatures with tiny backsides that made for a not-so-delicious ham. Cows didn’t produce much milk (just enough for their own calves) and chickens were skinny little creatures that laid eggs weekly rather than daily. Every species that’s ever been farmed by humans has been genetically modified over time as a result.
I keep making this point because our ancestors deserve credit for their hard work: they toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of our ancestors’ hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to the millions of ancient farmers who worked so hard to produce them.
Engineers (including genetic engineers) know that humans have toiled for millennia to change nature and suit it to our own needs – animals became tamer and meatier, and plants started producing more edible portions. I want to counteract the misconception that humans encountered nature in a ‘pristine’ state.
[ancient humans] toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of their hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to our ancestors. – Animal Pharm (documentary)
I show the above documentary my Year 10 Science students to demonstrate what is currently being produced using genetic engineering techniques. The video explains all the concepts mentioned in this article and is accessible for and educated audience of any age.
This post is part 4 in a weekly series on chemophobia. Next week, we’ll look at the psychology behind chemophobia.
This artificial vs natural foods phenomenon has grown somewhat since the All-Natural Banana.
This infographic explores the differences between the natural, “wild peach” and its modern, artificial relative. It explores how the ancient Chinese developed a small, wild fruit (that tasted like a lentil) into the juicy, delicious peaches that we eat today.
This image also pays homage to the thousands of years of toil that farmers put into developing the Peach regardless of whether they were aware of it consciously or not.
After the wild peach was domesticated in 4000 B.C., farmers selected seeds from the tastiest fruits for re-planting. They tended to the trees for thousands of years, and the fruits became bigger and juicier with each generation. After 6000 years of artificial selection, the resulting Peach was 16 times larger, 27% juicier and 4% sweeter than its wild cousin, and had massive increases in nutrients essential for human survival as well.
I’m obsessed with print. I love typefaces, I care about using the right quality paper and inks, and I’m fussy about alignment, kerning and line spacing. And that’s why I decided to sell “Ingredients” poster prints.
I’ve got one of each of these prints, and—Wow!—they look so much more gorgeous in real life than on-screen.
Ordering prints is a less formal affair than the T-Shirt Store—just cover my costs via PayPal and I’ll get the prints on the way to your address within 24 hours. Click the Order Prints tab in the website’s ribbon to get your hands on some of these “Ingredients” prints.
Oh—and they’re cheap. Just $10 each and worldwide shipping is available 🙂
Order one to help spread the word. I’ll even sign them if you like 😉 James
There are now 20 graphics on my to-do list. I’ll probably make about 5 of them, and only one or two of those will be any good. 😛 (Making graphics is a bit like taking photographs—you take 1000 photos on holiday, delete 500 and put no more than 6 on your wall.)
The graphic below is a follow-up to Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana. To make these graphics, I calculated the percentage composition of all the interesting ingredients and wrote an “ingredients” label for each fruit using E-numbers where they exist. Anthocynanins, which are said to give blueberries their “superfood” status, are also known as E163, for example.
As a Chemistry teacher, I want to erode the fear that many people have of “chemicals”, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab. Enjoy!
I like the “fresh air” at the end. Nitrogen is E941, Oxygen is E948 and Carbon Dioxide is E290. (Argon, which comprises about 1% of the air we breathe, also has its own E-number: E938.) Thousands of minority ingredients including DNA have been omitted for brevity’s sake.
I usually care too much about food labels. If something has monosodium glutamate (E621) or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in it, I’m probably not going to buy it no matter how healthy or delicious the food looks as a whole. (Strangely, I’d be willing to eat it, though.)
Some people care about different ingredients such as “E-numbers”. I made this graphic to demonstrate how “natural” products (such as a banana) contain scary-looking ingredients as well. All the ingredients on this list are 100% natural in a non-GM banana. None of them are pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides or other contaminants.
There’s a tendency for advertisers to use the words “pure” and “simple” to describe “natural” products when they couldn’t be more wrong. With this diagram, I want to demonstrate that “natural” products are usually more complicated than anything we can create in the lab. For brevity’s sake, I omitted the thousands of minority ingredients found in a banana, including DNA 😉
This visualisation’s been on my list for a while now: Chinese ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ foods.
The Chinese have an ancient way of classifying foods into ‘hot’, ‘warm’, ‘cool’ and ‘cold’ based on how you feel after you eat them. Watermelon is ‘cold’, for example, and chocolate is ‘hot’. It makes sense, really.
I plotted “temperatures” (in a Chinese sense) of common foods against their retail price in Coles supermarket, Australia. The results are really interesting.
It’s a bit cartoony. Feel free to use it as you wish. Enjoy 🙂