New chemical rule: If I can’t pronounce it, it must be evil

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A new rule that could make the tricky business of chemical safety a lot easier has been discovered between the lines of the @NPR article What’s Inside The 26-Ingredient School Lunch Burger?  It was @chemjobber that first articulated this new rule – “if I can’t pronounce it, it must be evil!”  So simple!

Let’s dig deeper into this @NPR piece.  Here is an excerpt….

Thiamine mononitrate, disodium inosinate, pyridoxine hydrochloride.

Why are these hard-to-pronounce ingredients added to everything from a burger served in schools to veggie burgers in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store? We try to answer that on this edition of Tiny Desk Kitchen.

[Cute video of various NPR personalities fumbling over chemical names, a food scientist explaining ingredients with burgers cooking in background, flummoxed NPR host peering into to NPR fridge with the ending line “…this processed food is everywhere, even the Morning Edition freezer”, and pithy text saying “Tip: Don’t try building this burger at home. Measurements and process (and edibility) are uncertain.”]

It turns out the answers are as varied as the ingredients. But as we yearn to know what’s in our food and how it’s made, these kinds of ingredients with unfamiliar names make people suspicious.

“For me, it’s just a huge red flag,” says Ryan Lonnett, a parent of children in Fairfax County, Va., schools. He’s an advocate with the group Real Food For Kids.

When he looks at the ingredient list of the burger served in his kids’ cafeteria, he says things like disodium inosinate stand out. “Since I don’t know what it is, I’d rather not put it in my body,” Lonnett says.

Yes, yes…. instead of learning what a chemical is and what is does once ingested, let’s avoid it outright.  Well, learning stuff does take work.  Avoiding things we can’t pronounce or can’t be bothered to investigate seems a hell of a lot easier…

Take for instance the chemical (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone.

WHAT THE FUCK? There are numbers AND letters.  There are numbers BETWEEN letters! Plus, this chemical has a long name and we all know there is a correlation between chemical name length and evilness…



Poor ol’ (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone!  It’s got an Evilness Factor of about 300.  If only it had a shorter name… wait a minute! IT DOES HAVE A SHORTER NAME!  Actually, it has two shorter nicknames.   (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone goes by “ascorbic acid” or “vitamin C”.

Oh-uh. Vitamin C isn’t that evil.  OK, bad example.

Instead of going with a long chemical name, let’s go with a shorter one… hydrogen cyanide.  No numbers and fairly easy to pronounce – “hi-dro-jen sigh-ah-nide”.  One problem…

This shit will kill you at fairly low quantities.  A number of US states went with hydrogen cyanide to carry out death penalty sentences when gas chambers were in use.  Say you inhaled about 150 parts-per-million (ppm) of hydrogen cyanide.  You’d probably be dead in ~30 minutes.  Death won’t happen* if you ingest over 5000 ppm of our scary sounding (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone (vitamin C) by drinking 6 oz of Emergen-C.  That’s because vitamin C works nicely in our bodies, while hydrogen cyanide is an evil bastard.

Hmmmmm… there seems to be a problem with the seductively easy “If I can’t pronounce it, it must be evil” rule.  There are things that are tricky to pronounce that aren’t evil and things that are evil that aren’t tricky to pronounce.  Hmmmmm…what to do, what to do….




*No, I’m not a medical doctor. Yes, they are probably exceptions.

Editorial Materials & MethodsmA delicious orange containing (5R)-5-[(1S)-1,2-Dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxy-2(5H)-furanone was enjoyed during the drafting of this post.  The author reported no ill effects upon consuming said orange.  

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Image 1: chemical structure is from 
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One Response to New chemical rule: If I can’t pronounce it, it must be evil

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