REVIEW: Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of Plants, Poisons and Processed Foods by George Zaidan
Cheese puffs. Coffee. Sunscreen. Vapes. George Zaidan reveals what will kill you, what won’t, and why—explained with high-octane hilarity, hysterical hijinks, and other things that don’t begin with the letter H.
Ingredients offers the perspective of a chemist on the stuff we eat, drink, inhale, and smear on ourselves. Apart from the burning question of whether you should eat that Cheeto, Zaidan explores a range of topics. Here’s a helpful guide:
Stuff in this book:
– How bad is processed food? How sure are we?
– Is sunscreen safe? Should you use it?
– Is coffee good or bad for you?
– What’s your disease horoscope?
– What is that public pool smell made of?
– What happens when you overdose on fentanyl in the sun?
– What do cassava plants and Soviet spies have in common?
– When will you die?
Stuff in other books:
– Your carbon footprint
– Food sustainability
– CEO pay
– Science funding
– Any kind of ball really
Zaidan, an MIT-trained chemist who cohosted CNBC’s hit Make Me a Millionaire Inventor and wrote and voiced several TED-Ed viral videos, makes chemistry more fun than Hogwarts as he reveals exactly what science can (and can’t) tell us about the packaged ingredients sold to us every day. Sugar, spinach, formaldehyde, cyanide, the ingredients of life and death, and how we know if something is good or bad for us—as well as the genius of aphids and their butts—are all discussed in exquisite detail at breakneck speed.
Just the cover alone was enough to grab my attention but then the blurb promised me info on coffee, cheesepuffs and sunscreen. Here’s a book on science by an MIT trained chemist who’s trying to cut through the bullshit and reveal what goes into experiments, what can be wrong about experiments (turns out – a whole shitload), why not to click on the latest “Studies Reveal …!!!” headline on the internets, and how to look at association vs causal vs should you really worry.
There’s a lot of science out there but there’s a lot of bad science out there, too. Since our brains are naturally poised to take the swan dive leap from “association” to “it’s true!,” it behooves us to keep in mind that not every earth shattering “science” headline we read actually is true. The things we eat, drink, smoke, and slather on our bodies are complicated chemicals and since our bodies have lots of complicated chemicals in them, weird reactions can and do take place that are hard to study or understand. And sometimes processed foods are actually good for us. Well, what do you think honey is?
I also learned a lot of things. Plants – sometimes they are out to kill you. The importance of photosynthesis – we’d all be dead without it so even if some plants are out to kill you, they’re still the good guys. Transforming toxic plants into edible food is processing them. Microbes will steal our food if they can get to it first but sometimes we can use the little bastards to our own ends. Aphid shitballs taste good. Scientists can hold grudges against each other. They can also engage in p-hacking because it’s publish or perish. It’s too bad that the word “theory” has different meanings to scientists and nonscientists.
So will that Cheeto kill you? Probably not. But bags and bags of them over years and years probably won’t do much for your health. Is sunscreen safe? It’s better than getting cancer from sun tanning as proved in a (sorta scientific controlled) experiment that Great Britain (unintentionally) set up centuries ago called “Australia.” Is coffee good or bad for you? Yes. And you don’t want to know what causes the “Pool Smell” (it ain’t just bleach).
If chapter headings such as “Associations, or the Grapes of Math” with subheading “This chapter is about Ents, private jets, potholes, olive oil, Scorpios, and Santa” appeal to you, check out this hilarious trip through Science. Because … it’s Science! B