Chemophobia and Chicken McNuggets

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Yesterday, ACSH was the scene of a press conference to announce the publication of our new book, Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health. On the same day, the Montreal Gazette published an article by Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, on the subject of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.

What’s the connection? Well, of late McNuggets have become a favorite target of “experts” who think they know the “cause” of the obesity epidemic and who love to criticize the American diet. Dr. Schwarcz’s essay illustrates how opponents of fast food companies — such as McDonalds — use the public’s fear of chemicals as a way to generate hysteria and confusion.

Dr. Schwarcz, who is not an advocate of the McDonald’s confection, criticizes the McNuggets for their fat and salt content. But, says, ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross, “Dr. Schwarcz recognizes that the anti-McDonald’s people are using chemophobia to attack Chicken McNuggets, saying that since they’re made with some synthetic chemicals they must be dangerous. Dr. Schwarcz explains that this is a fallacy, and offers the example of a useful preservative called tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) added in their manufacture that’s derived from petroleum. TBHQ has been a source of some fascination for bloggers like Joseph Mercola, who falsely claims that it’s related to butane. It isn't, and that it comes from petroleum, as Mercola notes, hardly means it’s bad for you at the minuscule amounts present in the nuggets.”

In his article, Schwarcz observes:

Marion Nestle, an accomplished nutrition professor and author, correctly dismisses the concerns about dimethyl polysiloxane [a stabilizer] and TBHQ, but she has advice about "not eating any food with ingredients you can't pronounce." Does that mean we shouldn't consume anything that contains 4-methylthiobutyl isothiocyanate or epigallocatechin gallate? We would have to give up cabbage and tea.

Conversely, are we to assume that if we can pronounce it, we can eat it? "Arsenic" and "cyanide" are pretty easy to pronounce.

Promoting this sort of commonsense approach to complex chemicals is one of the aims of our book, and we commend Dr. Joe Schwarcz and his editors at the Gazette for making these points.