Category Archives: Food Chemistry

Fermented Food

Everyday at dinner, my mother would bring Kimchi to the table. I myself am not a big fan of the taste of Kimchi, but in my opinion, my mother, like all Koreans, might be. During the SARS outbreak 11 years ago, my uncle convinced me to eat Kimchi by telling me that the reason Korea was not affected by SARS was that all Koreans ate Kimchi. 11 years later, I am still asking myself what is so special about this fermented vegetable that Koreans and a few foreigners are crazy about. So I came up with the research question for this blog post: What are the positive and negative effects of consuming fermented food, and what is the chemistry behind them?

Kimchi is not the only type of food that has been through fermentation. Our favorites such as cheese, yoghurt, and smoked salmon have also been through this process. So, to begin, what is the definition of fermented food? According to Peter Sahlin at Lund Institute of Technology, fermented food is any foods influenced by lactic acid producing microorganisms. Similarly, fermentation was categorized by the World Health Organization as a “technique for preparation/storage of food.” This is because in the developing countries, one tenth of the children below the age of five die because of dehydration because of diarrhoea caused by unhygienic conditions. In this case, lactic acid fermentation has been discovered to “reduce the risk of having pathogenic microorganisms grow in the food.” (Sahlin, 1999)

Fermentation of foods has been an ancient traditional practice. Tiberius the Roman emperor always had a barrel of sauerkraut when he traveled to the Middle East because Romans knew of the effects of lactic acid that included protection from intestine infections. (Schachter, R. ) Over the years, fermented foods have continued to be known to create beneficial probiotics to our guts. Having healthier guts lead to healthier digestion, which means having better absorption of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, improving overall health. In addition, fermented foods have helped in relief from lactose intolerance, prevention of colon cancer and  prevention of reoccurrence of bowel disease. (Sisson, M., n.d.)

The beneficial effects of fermented food are caused by the lactic acid bacteria that form during fermentation which increases the acidity of the food (decrease the pH) as the bacteria convert energy from sugars and starches into lactic acid. (Erickson, Fayet, Kakumanu & Davis) Lactic acid bacteria, according to Sally Fellon, writer of Nourishing Traditions are ‘beneficial organisms that produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and an anti-carcinogenic substances.” (Pickl-It., n.d.) From what I have previously learned, acids such as lemon are able to kill harmful bacteria. When I connect this fact to my research, I could most likely conclude that when fermenting food, the food is not only stored at a state where harmful bacteria are not able to cultivate, but also the production of beneficial enzymes are not interfered, hence resulting in the beneficial effects of fermented food, such as improvement in digestion.

Figure 1: Lactic Acid Structure

However, when fermented food are over consumed, there can be negative health impacts.

Even though aldehydes are not toxic substances, if one encounters a high toxic level of aldehydes through foods such as kombucha tea, some pickles, wine and beer, one’s health may be damaged. Aldehydes are a type of organic compound produced by fermenting organisms, or oxidation of alcohols. They commonly contaminate cigarette and other smoke such as smog, vehicle and factory exhaust, synthetic fragrances, and others. (Schachter, R., n.d.) The human body has enzymes that are able to convert the aldehydes into a less-harmful substance, but when there is a high level of aldehydes, the aldehydes can become toxic and travel to the brain, causing neurological diseases. Another harmful effect of aldehydes is that it damages red blood cell membranes. What this  means is that red blood cells will become “less flexible in passing through tiny capillaries, altering hemoglobin” (oxygen transporter in RBC). In other words, there will be less oxygen available to the cells in the body, especially the brain. (Pierini, C., ASCP, C., & CNC. n.d.)

Figure 2: Aldehyde Structure
Figure 2: Aldehyde Structure

Despite that my sources suggest both negative and positive health implications of fermented food, they are not clear about the specific diseases that can be caused by the negative impacts of fermented food, but only clear about the specific diseases that can be prevented by the positive impacts. From this, I may be able to assume that the positive consequences of eating fermented food may be greater than the negative consequences, and if I would like to avoid the negative consequences, I may need to avoid certain types, such as alcohol, although this may not be a problem as I am not an alcohol consumer.

After learning about the effects of fermented foods, I realized that it was no coincidence that my mother had intestinal problems. I learned that all this time, when my mother was bringing Kimchi to dinner table, she was eating the fermented vegetable for her health rather than for the taste.

Figure 3: Kimchi


1. Erickson, L., Fayet, E., Kakumanu, B., & Davis, L. (n.d.). Retrieved from Files/CH 5 – Lactic Acid Fermentation.pdf

2. Pickl-It: What is lactic acid?. (n.d.). Pickl-It. Retrieved September 15, 2013, from

3. Pierini, C., (ASCP), C., & CNC. (n.d.). A Health-Destroying Toxin We Can’t Avoid And Must Detoxify. Vitamin                         Research Products. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from http://


4. Sahlin, P. (1999). Fermentation as a method of food processing. Retrieved from:

5. Schachter, R. (n.d.). Risks and Benefits of Fermented Foods Consumption | Wake Up World. Wake Up World.

Retrieved September 14, 2013, from

benefits- of-fermented-foods-consumption/

6. Sisson, M. (n.d.). The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods | Mark’s Daily Apple. Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved                     September 14, 2013, from


7. Aldehydes and Ketones. (n.d.). Boundless. Retrieved September 15, 2013, from–2/functional-group-names-


8. Healthy Kimchi Burritos | Hungry Girl in Korea. (n.d.). Hungry Girl in Korea | The blog about healthy cooking and baking in Korea. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from

9. Helmenstine, A. M., & Ph.D.. (n.d.). Lactic Acid Chemical Structure. Chemistry – Chemistry Projects, Homework Help, Periodic Table. Retrieved September 16, 2013, from—L/Lactic-Acid.htm

The Alkaline Diet

After reading Nicholas’ post on the claim made by the company that produced water ionizers, I was reminded of a similar claim made by advocates of the ‘Alkaline Diet’. I decided to investigate whether these claims were accurate, or like the ones made by the water-ionizer company, scientifically wrong.

The Alkaline Diet is based on the theory that eating specific foods can affect maintenance of the body’s ideal pH balance, and improve health. (Collins & Chang, n.d) A website promoting holistic treatments gave the following reasoning for the diet:

The pH of the blood must always fall between 7.35 and 7.45  (slightly alkaline) to ensure an appropriate concentration of oxygen in the blood. A pH lower than 7.35 (Acidosis) may portray the beginnings of a disease / aging, while a pH higher than 7.45 (Alkalosis) would result in seizure, and a possible coma.

In order to keep the blood within this pH range, the website then explains, 75% of alkaline forming foods must be consumed; however, the American diet consists of 80% of acid forming foods.

The body creates a buffering system in order to counteract this abundance of acidic food in the diet; this buffering system runs on electrolytes, which are important for the metabolic functioning of body systems. Adequate electrolyte supply will pose no problem on the buffer system, however a shortage of these electrolytes will make it difficult for the body to maintain homeostasis (a state of equilibrium). A shortage of electrolytes usually occurs as a cause of excessive consumption of acid forming foods. (Frequency Rising, n.d)

At first, this claim made sense to me. After all, medical websites confirm that the blood’s pH must fall within a certain range. (Collins & Chang, n.d) Furthermore, there is evidence that shows that the concentration of Oxygen in the blood is affected by the blood’s pH, and as I have previously learnt in Biology class, it is true that the pH of blood must remain within a certain range to ensure health.  (RSC, n.d) Another medical website mentioned diseases such as Acidosis and Alkalosis, the former caused by a blood pH lower than what it should be, and another caused by a blood pH higher than it should be. (Dugdale & Zieve, n.d) Was the claim made by the holistic website accurate? Upon further examination and reflection, it was clear to me what the problem was: the holistic website was trying to convince people on the basis of a logical fallacy!* Our body deals with acidic food with a buffer system that does not work properly when you consume excessive acidic foods?


That makes no sense.

I soon realized that it was very easy to see the reason they would make this claim, as directly under the article, I saw this.

Water Ionizer Advertisement

This reminded me of Nicholas’ post, and confirmed my doubts: it was all just a marketing technique.

I decided to look at the biochemistry myself to determine the validity of the diet.

I found the concentration of Oxygen in the blood is controlled by a separate mechanism: oxygen flows around the body in blood by hemoglobin, a complex molecule with a central ion. (AUS-e-TUTE, n.d) The oxygenation of blood is an equilibrium reaction:

Hb4(aq) + 4O2(aq) <–> Hb4O8(aq)

A number of equilibrium reactions involving hemoglobin are responsible for the buffering of the blood: the net reaction being –

HbH+(aq) + O2(aq) <–> HbO2(aq) + H+(aq)

Metabolic reactions in the body release many acidic compounds, which lowers the blood’s pH by increasing the concentration of H+ ions present in the blood. This in turn, forces the equilibrium position to the left, resulting in acidosis. This decrease in oxygen supply causes fatigue and headaches. Acidosis is also the same condition you experience temporarily when you exercise without warming up, or when you engage in strenuous exercise when the available supply of oxygen cannot meet the demand for energy to complete the oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide. (AUS-e-TUTE, n.d)

Thus, Acidosis really has nothing to do with what you eat.

Additionally, although electrolytes are important for the body, the only ion that affects the pH of the blood is the Phosphate Ion (PO42-), which is part of the Phosphate Buffer System. (Electrolytes, n.d) However, the primary buffer system for balance of the blood pH’s remains the Hydrogen Carbonate Buffer System.

Hydrogen Carbonate is produced in the body with water and CO2 (the end product of cellular metabolism) with the following reaction:

H2O + CO2 <–> H2CO3(aq)

The Hydrogen Carbonate is then involved in another (can be classified as a Bronsted-Lewry) reaction, which produces bicarbonate and the Hydronium ion:

H2CO3 + H2O <–> H3O+ + HCO3

If there is excess acid in the body (H3O+), the equilibrium shifts left.

H2CO3 + H2O <–  H3O+ + HCO3

Thus, the excess acid is neutralized by the base (HCO3)

The reverse takes place if there is excess base (OH) in the body: this reacts with the carbonic acid (H2CO3) and the equilibrium shifts right.

H2CO3 + OH <–  H2O + HCO3

This system thus operates under Le Chaletier’s principle, which states that “if a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, temperature, or total pressure, the equilibrium will shift in order to minimize that change ”. This reaction is the main mechanism used by our body to maintain homeostasis.

The Phosphate Buffer System plays a role in plasma and erythrocytes (components of blood)- (Tamarkin, n.d)

H2PO4- + H2O <–> H3O+ + HPO42-

Any excess acid reacts with monohydrogen phosphate to form dihydrogen phosphate –

H2PO4- + H2O <– H3O+ + HPO42-

Similarly, excess base is neutralized by dihydrogen phosphate –

H2PO4- + H2O –> H3O+ + HPO42-

So if this is all true, and the claim that eating alkaline foods can affect blood’s pH is not correct, then why do people continue to follow the Alkaline diet: and how can we explain their success stories?

The Alkaline Diet is “a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of water, avoiding processed foods, coffee, and alcohol, which are all recommendations for a generally healthy diet anyway,” says Marjorie Nolan, who is an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. (Collins & Chang, n.d) This is evident by an Alkaline Diet cheat sheet, which recommends eating cold-pressed olive oil instead of butter, frozen fruit instead of canned fruit, sparkling water instead of soda, honey instead of sugar, and so on. (Wilkinson, n.d) According to Nolan, any diet consisting of this meal plan is bound to prove successful, because it is “basically healthy”. She confirms however, that the body “regulates our pH between 7.35 and 7.45 no matter how we eat.” (Collins & Chang, n.d)

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

Alkaline Diet for Dummies: Cheat Sheet

So, what are the implications of this finding?

First, the negative implications: because the Alkaline diets promotes less consumption of dairy products and animal fats, followers of the diet if not careful, may develop calcium and protein deficiencies, according to John Asplin, an MD and kidney specialist. (Collins & Chang, n.d) A vegetarian myself, I was quick to disagree with this statement in my mind, however, he acknowledged that “vegetarians can be completely healthy in their diets, as long as they make sure to get adequate supplies of essential components to a diet.” Asplin also asserted that this could be seen as benefit also, because “many Americans over-consume protein”. (Collins & Chang, n.d) Another implication of this finding is that followers of the Alkaline Diet may not have a scientifically correct view of the functioning of their body, and this could lead to potential problems in the future. Followers of the diet may also waste money on expensive products (such as the water ionizer advertised on the holistic website) that do not affect our body in the way that the manufacturers claim.

What are the benefits? Because excess animal protein results in a higher risk of developing kidney stones, “eating a diet rich in vegetables, as with the alkaline diet” can lower this risk, according to Asplin. (Collins & Chang, n.d) It has also been suggested by research that an alkaline diet may slow bone loss and muscle waste, increase the growth hormone, and reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases (these are correlations however, and cannot be stated as a cause-effect relationship). (Schwalfenberg, 2011)

A negative correlation between the alkaline diet and incidence of cancer has also been shown, however the same results were obtained when the vegetarian diet was measured against cancer rates: additionally, as the study was correlational, there were many confounding variables that may have affected the results such exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, genetics, etc. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

Nolan speaks of this finding, stating that “clinical studies have proved without a doubt that people who eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and hydrate properly do have lower rates of cancer and other diseases”, but that “it probably has nothing to do with blood pH”. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

The journey I took while examining this diet taught me to properly examine the agenda of the source making a claim before choosing to accept it: because the holistic website was advertising the water ionizer, they made claims that were scientifically inaccurate to make the product seem more appealing to customers. Web MD on the other hand, a medical website dedicated to providing people with factual information on clinical practices, provides evidence and information that supports the knowledge we have of the biochemistry of our body.

Thus, William Mundel, the vice chair of the department of General Internal Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, advises against diets that “want you to buy only their product” (i.e.: the water ionizer), “focus on a narrow spectrum of foods” (i.e.: eliminate all animal fats), and “claim that science has kept something secret, or that someone has discovered something that nobody else knows about”. These are the types of diets that tend to be scientifically wrong. (Collins & Chang, n.d)

* The logical fallacy used is Circular Reasoning / Begging the Question.


Chemical Buffer Systems- Acid-Base Balance. (n.d.). Boundless. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Chemistry Tutorial : Oxygen Transport in Blood. (n.d.). AUS-e-TUTE For Astute Science Students. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Chemistry for Biologists: Transport of Oxygen in the Blood. (n.d.). Royal Society of Chemistry | Advancing the Chemical Sciences. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Collins, S., & Chang, L. (n.d.). Alkaline Diet: Pros, Cons, and Do They Really Affect Acid Levels in the Body?. WebMD. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Dugdale, D., & Zieve, D. (n.d.). Alkalosis – Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment of Alkalosis – NY Times Health Information . Health News – The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Life Balances: Electrolytes. (n.d.). John Kitkoski’s Life Balances Program: Home Page. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Schwalfenberg, G. (2011, October 12). The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Tamarkin, D. (n.d.). Buffers. STCC Faculty Webpages. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Wilkinson, J. (n.d.). Acid Alkaline Diet For Dummies – Cheat Sheet. For Dummies . Retrieved May 20, 2013, from

pH balance. (n.d.). Frequency Rising – Alternative Medicine and Holistic Health Products. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from

Eating a Cookie: Different Fats and their Implications

Picture 1: An Image of a Package of Mrs. Fields Cookies

Eating is one of my foremost hobbies. When my dad brought back Mrs. Fields triple chocolate cookies from a business trip, I immediately ripped open the package and began to gobble one down. Realizing that the sports season had already started, I decided to scrutinize the ingredients list in an attempt to discern whether the cookies were, according to my judgment, “too fatty to eat”. Among the many ingredients, two caught my eye— “Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil” and “Canola Oil”. Two types of oil—normal and partially hydrogenated— were used, and I had no idea why. Eager to find out what “hydrogenated” implied, I began research on fats and hydrogenation immediately.

I had always thought that all fats such as oils were bad, because I assumed that eating fats was equal to adding fats into our body, and I sure do not want to gain weight! Thus, I favored items in the supermarket that were labeled “non-fat”. According to the Harvard School of Public Health (n.d.), however, there are “good” fats and “bad” fats. In general, saturated fats are bat fats which increase risk of heart disease, while unsaturated fats are good fats that actually decrease risk.

Fats, as seen in the image below, contain fatty acid chains. The tails consist of long hydrocarbon chains, and saturated fats have single carbon-carbon bonds, while unsaturated fats have one of more carbon-carbon double bonds. (Carter, 2011)

Picture 2: Image of Saturated and Unsaturated Fatty Acid Chains

Unsaturated fats are more beneficial to our health because a carbon-carbon double bond causes kinks in the hydrocarbon tails; the kinks make the oil less closely-packed, and thus in a liquid state. Consequently, the fat is also more easily digested. (Carter, 2011) This is beneficial to our health because according to Harvard School of Public Health (n.d.), these “good” types of fats create high-density lipoproteins (HDL) which work as “garbage trucks” that scavenge harmful cholesterol and dispose of it in the liver. On the other hand, the saturated fats create low-density lipoproteins (LDL) which carry cholesterol from the liver to the body; when there is too much LDL, deposits may form on arteries and limit blood flow–potentially causing cardiac disease.

After researching fats, I was ready to find out more about hydrogenation. The name says it all—hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen is added to increase the melting point of unsaturated fatty acids by converting them to saturated fatty acids through a chemical reaction such as “H2C=CH2 + H2 —> H3C-CH3” (Derry, Connor, Jordan, 2008, p. 74). As seen in the chemical equation, some carbon-carbon double bonds become carbon-carbon single bonds. Interestingly, this ties to what we recently learned in IB Chemistry about the catalytic properties of period three transition metals, because nickel is used as a catalyst in the hydrogenation reaction. (Derry et al., 2008) In the process of hydrogenation, therefore, the “healthy” fats are converted into fats that may increase health risks because the carbon-carbon single bonds . These harmful fats, however, are not normal saturated fats; they are trans fats, in which the H atoms are at opposite sides of the carbon-carbon double bonds. Trans fats, according to registered dietitian, Mary Beth Sodus (2010),  “pose an even higher risk of heart disease than saturated fats.”

Picture 3: Structures of Different Fats

Picture 4: Process of Hydrogenation

After learning this, I could not understand why manufacturers would go through so much trouble—putting unsaturated oil at high heat in the presence of finely ground particles of nickel metal (Sodus, 2010)—to make our food unhealthier.  According to Sodus (2010), however, including hydrogenated fats in foods prolongs the shelf life of products because saturated fats, which are solids, have a higher melting point; the longer the shelf life, the cheaper costs are. Thus, I realized, in order to lower costs by making foods spoil slower, food companies are processing foods with hydrogenated oils at the risk of increasing consumers’ risk of clogged arteries! This exposes the negative impact of industrialization and technology, as these innovations are giving manufacturers the means to make our diet unhealthier for their own monetary benefit. The implications of hydrogenated fats are huge: they are proof that we may be hurting our bodies with these trans fats without knowing it, so we must be more cautious in choosing what to eat.

Later, after some class discussion in IB Chemistry, I realized that I completely missed out on the alternate perspective–the properties of hydrogenated fats could be beneficial to consumers. Some consumers may value the prolonged shelf life, so it is really the consumer’s decision as to whether he or she prefers more health benefits or more convenient storage and often a cheaper price.

In 2007, foods that contained more than 0.5 grams or more of hydrogenated fats, which are also known as artificial trans fats, were banned in all New York City restaurants. This ban had a positive impact on public consumption of foods, as according to journalist Amanda MacMillian, “the average trans fat content of customers’ meals <has> dropped… from about 3 grams to 0.5 grams.” Furthermore, this ban caused many restaurant chains to eliminate trans fat nationwide. (MacMillian, 2012) This is good, but in my opinion, still too lenient, as 0.49grams would still be allowed in the food. Hopefully one day, not only will hydrogenated fats be completely banned in restaurants, but also in our cookies and chips too. In the meantime, we must be more discerning when choosing what to eat. The general rule of thumb according to Harvard School of Public Health (n.d.) is, “Choose foods with healthy fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid foods with trans fat.”

From my research, discussions with friends, and discussion in IB Chemistry class, I realized that we must learn to look at things from different perspectives: I was so immersed in the fact that hydrogenated fat was harmful that I never weighed out the benefits of hydrogenated fats. I had thought that all companies that utilized hydrogenated fats just focused on maximizing profits over their consumers’ health, but then I was reminded that many consumers would prefer the convenience of hydrogenated fats. In addition, I also realized that we have to be more aware in what we eat. Awareness is so important in this age when everything, including our food, is changing daily as technology develops.

Finally, remember, if you value your health, carefully read the ingredients list and avoid hydrogenated fats!


Carter, J. S.(2011, March 12). Lipids: Fats, oils, waves, etc. Retrieved February 15 from:

Carter, J. S. (2011, March 12) Saturated and unsaturated fatty acid chains. [Online image] Retrieved February 15 from:

Derry, L., Connor, M., & Jordan, C. (2008) Chemistry for use with the ib diploma programme higher level. Australia: Pearson Heinemann

Emerald Insight, (n.d.) Hydrogenation Process. [Online image] Retrieved February 19 from:

Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.) Fats and cholesterol. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved February 15 from:

MacMillian, A. (2012, July 16). NYC’s fat ban paying off. CNN. Retrieved February 15 from:

Mrs. Fields Cookies (n.d.) Mrs. Fields Triple Chocolate cookies. [Online image]Retrieved February 15 from:×413.jpg

University of Maryland Medical Center. (2010, November 3). Trans fats 101. Features Stories. Retrieved February 15 from:

Microwave Cooking: destroying our food nutrients?

I am not a picky-eater but I am incredibly particular about the warmth of my food. I refuse to drink soup that is merely lukewarm. My theory is that if the food is supposed to be served hot, it should be steaming while I’m devouring it. Thus, in the course of one meal, I often repeatedly reheat my plate in the microwave. However, my mom despises this, because she says that microwaving my dinner takes away its nutrients. I did not believe that microwave cooking affected the food’s nutrient retention, and thus decided to search up the effect of microwaving on foods.

Microwave ovens contain a magnetron, which forms a high-intensity electromagnetic field. This produces microwaves, short and high frequency waves part of the electromagnetic spectrum, that heat up our food (Fitzgerald, 2005). According to Anantheswaran, Penn State professor of food science, “The oven’s electromagnetic field oscillates as it passes through the water molecules in the food, changing the polarity of the field and causing the polar covalent water molecules to flip themselves in order to be aligned with the new polarity.” As the water molecules continuously switch directions and vibrate, they generate heat through friction.

Figure 1: Microwaves as part of the electromagnetic spectrum


Figure 2: Structure of a Microwave Oven


Figure 3: Interaction between H2O molecules and microwave

The effect of microwaving foods is actually similar to that of conventional cooking. By heating food, its proteins undergo denaturation, which is a process I learnt about in Biology class. This causes them to lose their function but not their nutritional value (Hendrickson, 2011). Furthermore, heat, whether generated by microwave ovens or by conventional cooking, also destroys some vitamins in food. According to Dr. D. Zhang, microwaving food even reduce vitamin loss during cooking, because more vitamins are loss when the food is cooked for a longer time. As microwaves shorten cooking time, they can decrease the destruction of vitamins.

On the other hand, while professor Anantheswaran agree with the “greater retention of nutrients” due to microwaving foods, he asserts that, “most consumers manage to overcook their food by leaving it in the microwave too long or by using too high of a power setting.” The advent of microwaves also makes it more convenient to heat up foods repeatedly, like I do, which destroys the structures of vitamins and phytonutrients (Adams, 2007). It ease of use also makes people more inclined to cook their foods that could be otherwise eaten in its raw and most nutritional state.


Figure 4: Structure of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is extremely heat-sensitive

Furthermore, microwaves have been associated with various health concerns, including microwave radiation leakage. While the FDA has reported the minimal radiation leakage through the viewing glass to be “insignificant”, there have been contradicting publications, such as Dr. Becker’s The Body Electric, which describes the health effects of microwave radiation as the “microwave sickness”. It states that its “most common manifestations are chronic excitation of the sympathetic system…often includes headache…irritability…reproductive problems, and cancer.” (Becker, 1998, 314) The Canadian government has also acknowledged that some microwave ovens may expose us to microwaves, but asserts that they aren’t deleterious “as long as the oven is properly maintained.” (Health Canada, 2005)

It is important to note the potential bias in my sources. Producers and even governments might conceal certain evidence in the official data of microwave leakages, in order to market their product to the public. However, similarly, this bias could also apply to publications that focus on getting rid of microwave ovens. In the Mercola article, there was an advertisement for “Turbo ovens” that is apparently a “healthy alternative to an ordinary microwave”. Thus, the article could exaggerate the dangers of a microwave in order to capture the audience’s attention and to promote another product.

In conclusion, microwaves, like conventional cooking, cause nutrient and vitamin reduction in foods due to the heat. The controversial claim that there is a dangerous “microwave effect” (Mercola, 2010) still lies in the limitations in our studies. Perhaps the biggest implication is that heat, through whichever cooking method, damages nutrients retention in food. Thus, one should explore other methods to retain vitamins, such as a short cooking time, using less heat and water, and steaming. People should also consider eating more organic, raw foods. Lastly, while microwave radiation leakage is still debatable, one could choose to stand further away from the oven while it’s running, and to have annual checks on their oven’s microwave emissions. As a personal resolution, I will now try to limit microwaving and overheating my food, because what’s the point of eating my vegetables if they have lost all their nutrients?

Work Cited:

Adams, M. (2007, August 06). Natural news. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, T. (2005). Research penn state. Retrieved from
Anthony L. Komaroff. (2006). Harvard healthbeat. Retrieved from

Kirstin Hendrickson. (2011, feb 02). Retrieved from

Mercola, J. (2010, May 18). Mercola: take control of your health. Retrieved from

Wayne, A. (2012). Health-science. Retrieved from
(2005). Retrieved from Health Canada website:

Images Citation:

Ascorbic acid structure [Image]. Retrieved February 24, 2013, from:

Em Spectrum [Image]. Retrieved February 1, 2013, from:

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Organic Food – For Better or For Worse?

I admit, for the longest time, I believed all fruits and vegetables were organic. When I first began seeing and hearing about organic produce, I remember naively thinking, “Isn’t the label ‘organic’ redundant? Aren’t all fruits and vegetables organic anyway?”

For most of human history, the answer to these questions would be yes. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, however, agriculture began to become more and more industrialized and the Green Revolution began. To make food production easier, better, and faster, synthetic chemicals began to be used, resulting in genetically altered and human-processed foods. As a result of these new synthetic methods for farming, the organic farming movement began to grow, resulting in the rise of organic food stores and products all over the world, with consumers growing more and more environmentally conscious.

Contrary to popular belief, the label “organic” does not mean that these products are free from pesticides and chemicals. Rather, organic simply means that the pesticides and chemicals that are used when farming are not man-made, but come from natural sources. According to Lou Holm of the University of California, Berkeley, “Most organic farmers (and even some conventional farmers, too) employ mechanical and cultural tools to help control pests. These include insect traps, careful crop selection (there are a growing number of disease-resistant varieties), and biological controls (such as predator insects and beneficial microorganisms).” While organic produce is not completely chemical-free, organic farmers are more environmentally conscious than conventional farmers. Is this really worth the extra effort? Perhaps more importantly to us, is organic produce worth the extra cost?

These two questions cannot be easily answered. Insecticides, which are used in agriculture to kill insects, are generally considered harmful to the environment, but increase agricultural production. They are generally classified as organochlorines (contain one covalently bonded chlorine atom), organophosphates (esters of phosphoric acid), or carbamates (derived from carbamic acid) – all of which have shown signs of toxicity. As they are transferred through the air, water, and land, pesticides contaminate other ecosystems, affecting things that they were not intended for, including up to 20,000 human deaths reported annually.

Perhaps what’s more startling is that recent studies have begun to show that organic pesticides are no better than their synthetic counterparts. A study conducted by the University of Guelph shows that because organic pesticides often require larger doses, they are actually less environmentally friendly. Environmental studies professor Rebecca Hallett said of the experiment, “It’s too simplistic to say that because it’s organic it’s better for the environment. Organic growers are permitted to use pesticides that are of natural origin and in some cases these organic pesticides can have higher environmental impacts than synthetic pesticides often because they have to be used in large doses.” Organic produce may, in fact, not be worth the extra cost to both producers and consumers.

As the world grows more conscious about the need for green living practices, organic produce will become more popular and for good reason – while organic produce may also affect the environment, organic farming also has numerous benefits. Generally, organic farmers have been shown to promote the sustainability of their crops, allowing their plants and soil to remain healthier for longer. In the modern day and age, the implications of higher sustainability levels are certainly welcomed. But before you decide to buy organic, consider that they aren’t necessarily perfect for the environment either.

Works Cited:

“Advantages and Disadvantages Organic Farming: Good Things, Barriers and Environmental Effects.” Sustainable Living on a Small Farm. Web. 16 May 2011. <>.

Drinkwater, Laurie E. (2009). “Ecological Knowledge: Foundation for Sustainable Organic Agriculture”. In Francis, Charles. Organic farming: the ecological system. ASA-CSSA-SSSA. p. 19. ISBN 9780891181736.

“Pesticide.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 15 May 2011. <>.

“Pesticides.” Pollution Issues. Web. 16 May 2011. <>.

University of Guelph. “Organic pesticides not always ‘greener’ choice, study finds.” ScienceDaily, 23 Jun. 2010. Web. 15 May 2011.

Iron Absorption!

At a recent checkup, my doctor informed me that my blood iron levels were once again below the minimum healthy threshold and that I am anemic, even though I had been taking iron pills for almost a year. The doctor said that this was a serious problem, as iron is essential in the successful completion of many vital body functions, notably the production of hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the bloodstream

Needless to say, I was pretty worried. The doctor then proceeded to tell me that my problem with iron absorption might as simple as that I was eating too much of certain foods that are known to block iron absorption, and that I would need to limit the amount of those foods that I ate. He also told me to increase my intake of foods that would facilitate and “enhance” iron absorption, helping my iron levels return to normal.

So what are these “blocking” and “enhancing” foods?

It is first necessary to look at how iron is absorbed into the body. Iron absorption occurs at a place called the duodenum (Does Vitamin C Increase Absorption?). The duodenum is the first section of the small intestine.


It can be assumed that the duodenum would simply absorb all the available iron in any food that passed through it, and then send the remaining “waste” material on through the digestive system.

This is not so. There are two types of iron that are present in food, heme iron and non-heme iron.

Heme iron is present in meat, and the duodenum absorbs it very well. It is absorbed well because it it is composed of animal hemoglobin and muscle tissue, which is similar in structure to our own bodies, and is also what the body is trying to produce with the iron absorbed (Does Vitamin C Increase Absorption?)

On the other hand, non-heme iron is found in all non-meat food products, such as dark green leafy vegetables. This form of iron is quite difficult for the duodenum to absorb (Non Heme Iron Foods), and only about 1-7% of non-heme iron in a food source is absorbed. This results in extremely little iron being absorbed at all, potentially leading to low iron levels and health problems (like anemia, where there is not enough hemoglobin in blood to carry oxygen, resulting in dizziness, fatigue, and fainting) (Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron), even though a person might be eating foods that are technically “high in iron”.

But can this low absorption rate be affected by anything else?

Unfortunately, I learned from my doctor that the consumption of a very common food can even further reduce the amount of iron absorbed by the duodenum: tea.

Tea contains chemical compounds called polyphenols (Foods That Block Iron Absorption) They bind to the non-heme iron before and renders it difficult to be absorbed by the duodenum.

However, I also learned that there is also a food that facilitates the absorption of non-heme iron: anything citrus (my doctor recommended orange juice, or just orange)! Citrus fruits contains vitamin C, which is ascorbic acid.


When the ascorbic acid bonds with the non-heme iron, the compound, as a whole, becomes more stable, and the entire molecule becomes water soluble (Does Vitamin C Increase Absorption?). The membranes in our body all allow water to pass through.  As the iron has become water soluble, the duodenum’s mucus membrane readily absorbs the dissolved iron and much more iron is delivered into the bloodstream to produce hemoglobin.

Having learned all of this, I, an orange hater, thought to myself “Well why doesn’t everyone who has iron deficiency problems just eat lots of meat then?” I immediately realized that this was a huge bias.

This new knowledge was certainly beneficial for me, but would be even more beneficial to groups of people who do not consume meat because of religious or personal reasons, such as Buddhists or vegetarians.

Although eating meat is certainly not essential to survival, hemoglobin is. As these groups of people do not consume meat, they lose all sources of the easily absorbed heme iron. Thus, it is necessary that they are aware of these “blocking” and “enhancing” foods in order to be healthy.

Also, going back to the beginning of the post, the doctor made a point to tell me that it likely wasn’t any serious medical condition that was causing my anemia, simply a bad combination of food and that the chemistry between the foods was what was to blame. This shows that although medicine is widely considered to be rooting in biology, understanding how to diagnose and cure illnesses requires chemical knowledge as well.


“cid_235.png.” ascorbic acid. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>

Davis, Sarah. “Non Heme Iron Foods.” Livestrong. Livestrong, 23 March 2010. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>.

“Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron.” Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>.

“duodenum_position.png.” Duodenum Anatomy, Location, Parts and Pictures. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>.

Keefer, Amber. “Foods That Block Iron Absorption.” Livestrong. Livestrong, 9 November 2009. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>.

McCarty, Kristen. “Does Vitamin C Increase Iron Absorption?.” Livestrong. Livestrong, 5 August 2010. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <>.

Salt, seaweed and red wine – A possible cure for radiation poisoning?


Chinese shoppers crowd a shop in an effort to buy salt in Lanzhou, northwest China’s Gansu province on Thursday.

While food shopping with my mom at Carrefour two weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese Earthquake and the explosions and nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant reactors that followed the earthquake, I noticed most of the locals were buying unusual quantities of salt. When I asked her about it, she said that they believed the iodine in the salt would protect them from iodine-131, a radioactive contaminant which can, in sufficient concentrations, “lodge in the thyroid gland and cause cancer”. This piqued my interest as a chemistry student, and through some research I discovered that medical explanation for this is that people with low levels of natural iodine are vulnerable because “their thyroids will absorb any iodine encountered – even the radioactive kind. But when your thyroid is “topped off” with healthy iodine, it will not absorb the radioactive kind.

This phenomenon is not pertinent to just China but other countries as well – “Russian authorities have reported a run on red wine and seaweed”, chemists in Bulgaria are seeing shortages in iodine tablets. Panic buying in China is now so common that many supermarkets are sold out of salt, and there have even been reports of hoarding. False rumors have only fuelled the panic, resulting in “long lines and mob scenes in major cities”. The drastic measures taken by these shoppers begs the question- do these remedies really work, or are they just old wives’ tales?

Alternative treatments have been used by citizens to block radiation in the past, such as in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, when “the former Soviet government recommended seaweed” (which contains iodine) and red wine (which contains tannin).  It appears that this trend is continuing in present as well, as Japanese authorities are distributing potassium iodide tablets to people living near the Fukushima plant. However, scientists nowadays are questioning these methods. Some cite that iodized salt is not effective enough in blocking radiation (an “adult would need to swallow 6.6 lb to prevent radiation poisoning”) while others say that China “faces no imminent threat of radiation contamination from the Fukushima plant”, due to its distance from China. Most experts recommend that people take potassium iodide tablets if concerned, as they contain higher concentrations of iodine and are US FDA approved for that specific purpose.

The behavior of the Chinese may seem irrational, but are actually quite understandable. People are very concerned when it comes to their health or the health of their loved ones, especially in times like these where they lack a full scientific understanding about what is going on, and are being constantly fed contradictory information from the government and the media. They feel very vulnerable and want to do something to protect themselves from the possibility of danger, and will usually take the safest route to do so, even when they’re not sure why. This is exactly what the Chinese are doing when buying salt – they are reacting to the danger and taking the safer route by buying something they are familiar with which contains low levels of iodine as more of a precaution than an actual remedy. From a sociological standpoint the panic buying is occurring because it is the collective behavior – extraordinary activities carried out by groups of people- of the Chinese.  Therefore the implications of this event are that in times of danger, it is usually best to seek a scientific understanding before one takes action, as then you can better assess the situation and decide on your own solution, rather than getting swayed by the crowd into something futile.

600 words (not including image captions)

If you are more interested in this topic here is a good webpage to go to:

“Fallout Foods” That Block Radiation –


Copilon. “Potassium Iodide.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 24 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.

Healthy, Jim. “”Fallout Foods” That Block Radiation – Healthy Living on Shine.” Shine: Fashion and Beauty, Healthy Living, Parenting, Sex and Love, Career and Money, Food, and More – Shine on Yahoo! 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.

Johnson, Karen. “Tannin.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 14 July 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.

Pierson, David. “China: China Gripped by Panic Salt Buying amid Radiation Fears –” Los Angeles Times – California, National and World News – 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <,0,4281601.story>.

Rayner, Gordon. “Japan Nuclear Plant: Panic Buyers Seek out Salt, Seaweed and Red Wine as Rumour Fuels Fallout Fears – Telegraph.” – Telegraph Online, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph – Telegraph. 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <>.

Image citation

Chinese Shoppers Crowd a Shop in an Effort to Buy Salt in Lanzhou, Northwest China’s Gansu Province on Thursday. 2011. Photograph.

Getty Images.

Got Rice?

For someone living in China, rice is an unavoidable fact of life. You hear people talking about it. You see it just about everywhere you go. You eat it all the time. And if you don’t eat rice, there’s a mighty good chance that one of your friends do. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if one day rice becomes an unreliable source of food. Yet if you’ve been following the news, you would have noticed that that was exactly what happened: rice, along with many other food products, has been found to be laced with chemical residuals that pose potential harm to consumers. What’s the cause of this?

Now that’s a lot of pesticide. Image courtesy of Google Images.
The farmers of Heilongjiang, a northern part of China, face a great threat that goes by the name of the ‘leaf-mining fly.’ To counter these destructive pests who eat the rice they work so hard to cultivate, the farmers have turned to using pesticides. This situation – which is replicated all over China – is the reason why protests of toxic rice have been rising. Pesticides were once hailed as the “benefactor of all mankind,” but after multiple tests, and especially after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, many began to note the health risks in ingesting food that have been sprayed by pesticides. Pesticides contain a class of chemicals called “persistent organic pollutants,” otherwise known as POPs. POPs are chemicals that are altered to become resistant to the normal process of decomposition, resulting in the ability to remain somewhere long after it should be gone (ex. the human body). (Wikipedia) One of the POPs commonly found in pesticide is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, conveniently shortened to DDT:

C14H9Cl5. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The use of DDT as a pesticide was discovered by Paul Müller in 1939. It quickly became a favourite tool in driving away mosquitos, and was used to prevent malaria in countries such as Zimbabwe and Ethiopia (Science Clarified). When used in moderate amounts, DDT presents very little health risks; however, farmers in China are grossly overusing pesticide on their rice, sometimes even up to 40% more. (Huang) In such extreme doses, DDT becomes a factor in cancer (contains carcinogens), poisons fish, affects the reproductivity of birds, and more. As previously said, POPs last for a long time; DDT in particular has a half-life of anywhere from two to sixteen years. In these years, DDT can travel anywhere from the rice it is sprayed on, to the bird that eats the grains, to the human that eats the birds. DDT also is lipid-soluble (dissolves in oily liquids) but not water-soluble. (Science Clarified) That means that it will dissolve and remain in fatty parts of our body, while also remaining intact in water and soil. If the buildup is large, DDT could very well poison the environment and the humans who live there or eat the food grown in the environment.
DDT has been banned in the US since 1972, but it is still being manufactured in China. Pesticides, along with whitening chemicals and water-soaking methods, make the quality and healthiness of rice extremely unpredictable.

Don’t eat rice? Well, that’s alright. You can check out this list of other potentially toxic foods available in China and see how many you score out of 50. Unless this dangerous trend stops, we may soon find ourselves either importing meals, or turning to an alternative source of food – GM crops.

Further Reading: (GM crops, standing for genetically modified crops)

Hope vs anxiety for GM Crops

GM hotly debated in China


Eckley, Noelle. “Traveling toxics.” Environment 7(2001):24. eLibrary. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

“DDT in Dirt.” Alive. Alive, 2005. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Harrison, Karl. “DDT, What is DDT?.” 3Dchem. 3DChem, 2005. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

“DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).” Science Clarified. Advameg, n.d. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

“Persistent organic pollutant.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Huang , Jikun. “Ignoring The Labels: An Analysis of Pesticide Use in China.” EEPSEA. EEPSEA, may 2000. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Asian Glow?

We’ve all seen it (or at least heard of it), whether it be in movies, stories from friends, or *shock* in real life! Becoming tipsy after just a sip of drink, the reddening of the face….what is this often humiliating and always frustrating problem that so many Asians have?

Picture 1

“asian_glow_cmyk-300×191.jpg.” Esophageal Cancer and the ‘Asian Glow’. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <asian_glow_cmyk-300×191.jpg>.

Studies have shown that up to 50% of Asians suffer from “alcohol flush reaction” (deCODEme), colloquially known as “Asian glow”, a reference to the fact that, indeed, it is mostly Asians that have this problem. This reaction to alcohol entering the bloodstream causes facial flushing, nausea, an accelerated heartbeat, headaches, bloodshot eyes, and very rarely, seizures and loss of consciousness. 540 million in total in the entire world have this condition, and it is commonly acknowledged that that group of people is comprised of mainly Asians. But why?

First of all, it is necessary to understand what is supposed to happen to the alcohol upon ingestion by a human being. The alcohol would be ingested, reach the liver, and then undergo a series of complex chemical reactions, involving the deprotonation of alcohol, and the release of the product acetaldehyde.

At this point, enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases would break the ethanol (CH3CH2OH) into acetaldehyde (CH3CHO) through oxidation. Then,  “acetaldehyde dehydrogenase”, or ALDH would then break down the toxic acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid (think vinegar) which would then be absorbed by the body (Zbeda)


“asian_glow_cmyk-300×191.jpg.” Esophageal Cancer and the ‘Asian Glow’. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <>.

This enzyme, ALDH, is responsible for the plight of those who have the aforementioned condition, “alcohol flush reaction”

Many Asians carry a mutated form of the ALDH2 gene, manifesting as a result of a dominant allele passed from their parents. The most common theories seem to embrace the idea that either 1) the allele calls for the encoding of a slow-metabolizing form of ALDH2, resulting in large amounts of acetaldehyde circulating through the bloodstream, causing the symptoms mentioned above as a result of the toxicity of the product, or 2) a deficiency of the enzyme, also causing slow metabolizing within the body

But why Asians? Why not Europeans, or Australian aboriginals, or Inuits from the Arctic Circle, to name a few?

As the first organized civilizations began to emerge, communities needed to be able to find ways to attain clean drinking water if they were not near enough to a potable water source. Europeans, who were familiar with grains such as wheat and barley, fermented the plants into alcoholic drinks, which thus rendered the liquid antiseptic. Alcohol became readily available and common, as entire cultures were calibrated with alcohol in mind. As a result, their inborn acetaldehyde Dehydrogenase enzymes were frequently used, and thus carried through from generation to generation, causing modern-day Europeans and ancestors of Europeans  to almost always be able to tolerate alcohol.

On the other hand, in Asia, the Chinese had figured out a different way to purify their water: boiling. This method of purification soon spread to other areas around East Asia, and the level of alcohol consumed by Asians was very little compared to the Europeans. After centuries of disuse, evolution simply rendered the enzyme inactive, or extremely weak.

But big deal! So what? Getting a bit red in the face and experiencing some mild discomfort is a small price to pay for a fun night out, right?

Not so. Long term effects of this weakened/mutated enzyme can lead to up to a 1000% chance increase in risk of esophageal cancer! Acetaldehyde circulating through the body, not getting broken down, is what causes this risk to skyrocket, as acetaldehyde is a well-known and dangerous carcinogen (Blisstree).

But, having alcohol flush reaction comes with an advantage as well. It, intuitively, appears to suppress alcoholism rates in those who have the condition, as the side effects are often more than enough to deter them from drinking at all, let alone in excess (deCODEme). Furthermore, Asians are the most prone to alcohol flush reaction, and also are one of the races least prone to dependence upon alcohol, or alcoholism.

For real alcoholics, doctors often prescribe a drug called Disulfram, which essentially creates the same effects as the faulty ALDH2 enzyme. It works by preventing the oxidization of the acetaldehyde, resulting in the acetaldehyde circulating through the body, causing the “flush” reaction to occur, and thus discouraging the patient from drinking (“Flexyx”)

As AFR is, in Asian populations, a relatively common condition, measures should be taken to spread awareness about the huge amount of dangers associated with drinking with this condition, such as the possibility of becoming rapidly inebriated, and as a result, incapacitated, or eventually contracting esophageal cancer.

There currently is no “cure” for this “problem”, or some might say “blessing in disguise”. But might there be in the near future?

Works Cited:

“Alcohol Flush Increases Cancer Risk in Asia « Blisstree.” Blisstree. Web. 01 July 2010. <>.

“Alcohol Flush Reaction Risk – Genetic Testing for Alcohol Flush Reaction Risk | DeCODEme.” Genetic Testing for Diseases, Common Conditions and Health | Trace Your Ancestry | Explore Your DNA with a Genetic Test | DeCODEme. DeCODEme. Web. 01 July 2010.

“Flexyx: Esperal (Generic name – Disulfiram).” Flexyx. Flexyx, n.d. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <>.

Zbeda, Robert. “Esophageal Cancer and the “Asian Gow”.” The Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Trustees of Dartmouth College, 21 Nov. 2009. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <>.


“asian_glow_cmyk-300×191.jpg.” Esophageal Cancer and the ‘Asian Glow’. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <>.

“zbeda_equation_cmyk.jpg.” Esophageal Cancer and the ‘Asian Glow’. Web. 21 Oct 2010. <>.

A Colourful World

We see colour all day: in the sky (when the sky in Shanghai is blue), in all the scrumptious sushi, candy and raspberry muffins we eat, in the clothes we wear and miss it when it is bleached out of the paper we write on.

How important is colour? To me, as an artist, its very important. But how important is colour to you? More specifically, how important is  food colour?

Colourful fruits and vegetables.
Colourful fruits and vegetables.

As we know from class, food colour is divided into two general substances: dyes which are synthetically made and water soluble, and pigments which are naturally occuring and suspensions inside the cells of plants and animals.

One particular pigment has an interesting story…

Briefly the history of cochineal can be summarized as thus:

Used as a as a dye by the Aztec and Maya peoples of Central and North America, the pigment cochineal had comparable valuable to gold. Spanish conquerors of Central America saw the value of cochineal, and it became very popular in Europe. Roman Catholic Cardinals robes were coloured with cochineal, as were the jackets of the British military. Nowadays cochineal is marketed as a “natural” colorant, due to its originating from the cactus insect Dactylopius coccus who produces the pigment as a deterrent for predators.

Here societal perception of scientific words conflicts with the chemically accepted definition. Chemically, this pigment is as natural as they come. However, due to it’s originating from a living organism (albeit a tiny fungus like one), it is not “natural” in the sense implied by the vegetarians and religious leaders.

Carminic acid (C22H20O13) is the actual pigment in cochineal. It is an exception to the definition of pigment as it is one of the few natural water-soluble colorants that ismaking it both a natural pigment and a dye. Also, unlike other natural colorants, cochineal is heat and light stable and oxidation resistant. It is not known to have any harmful health effects.

Carminic acid (C22H20O13)

This versatile dye is currently produced as a folk custom in Mexico. However as indicated above, cochineal is now being reconsidered as a practical food dye. To extract cochineal one first extracts the female insects drying them in the sun. Also collected are the leaves of a special tree of Oaxaca. Water is heated and into it goes the oaxaca leaves (oxalic acid-mordant), the crushed cochineal bugs, and fresh lime juice.  The wet skeins of wool are placed into the pot and boiled, left to dry, then rinsed.The concentration of the red colour is due to the length of the soaking, and the chemicals added.

Recently I was reading a science fiction novel called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. There were many wild and improbable theories in the book, but one significant central concept: animals are the source of all solutions to biological solutions. If there is a problem with which you are struggling, an animal has the solution and you only need to look to find it.

In the cochineal insect, this theory appears to hold very true. There is probably much to be learned in the continued exploration of the diversity of animals on our planet.


Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Great Britain: Virago Press, 2004.

Derry, Lanna. Chemistry for use with the IB Diploma Program Higher Level. Victoria: Pearson Australia, 2008.