The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us

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Another instance where I can't remember why I put this book on my get-at-library list. Never mind, it's pretty good.

The author, George Zaidan, is described as a "science communicator, television and web host, and producer" on the dust jacket flap. He also has an Airplane!-style of writing: throw a lot of jokes at the reader, and enough of them are funny to get a laugh.

The language would definitely rate a PG-13, though. [Checks page 273.] Or maybe an R.

It is a relatively solid look at mostly nutritional epidemiology. Although he also looks at smoking and—see the subtitle—sunscreen. For the latter, it's a comparison of what's riskier: (a) skin cancer thanks to sun exposure, or (b) some other kind of cancer due to the chemicals in the goop we slather on our skin to avoid skin cancer?

But it's mostly food and drink. Zaidan delves into the science, concentrating on so-called "ultra-processed" foods, like (see the cover) Cheetos. And he doesn't even get into Flamin' Hot Cheetos, let alone CHEETOS® Crunchy XXTRA FLAMIN' HOT® Cheese Flavored Snacks. Which contain (as I type):

Enriched Corn Meal (Corn Meal, Ferrous Sulfate, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil (Corn, Canola, and/or Sunflower Oil), Xxtra FLAMIN' HOT® Seasoning (Salt, Maltodextrin [Made From Corn], Sugar, Yeast Extract, Monosodium Glutamate, Citric Acid, Artificial Color [Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 5], Sunflower Oil, Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Cheddar Cheese [Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes], Onion Powder, Whey, Natural Flavor, Garlic Powder, Whey Protein Concentrate, Buttermilk, Corn Syrup Solids, Sodium Diacetate), and Salt. CONTAINS MILK INGREDIENTS.

Well, you can't say you weren't warned. Or enticed. Yes, now I'm hungry.

Early parts of the book had me saying "Wait a minute. What about…?" a lot. But (good news) Zaidan does a decent job of answering those implicit questions as the book progresses. Specifically, he describes the "potholes" medical research in general and (specifically) research into risky dietary habits must encounter and avoid. P-hacking is described. John Ioannidis's work on the "reproducibility crisis" is described, as are Ioannidis's arguments with Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett.

And he doesn't mention food noodge Mark Bittman at all. High marks there.

One quirk: although Zaidan isn't too shy about describing chemical reactions, even showing some structural formulas, he seems averse to biting the bullet on writing numbers in scientific notation. So we get a lot of stuff like "Our eyes can detect photons within a very narrow energy range; from 0.00000000000000000028 to 0.00000000000000000056 joules". Come on, George. say "2.8 x 10-19 to 5.6x10-19 Joules". Even better—since you're simply describing a Joule as "a unit of energy" in a footnote, use a better unit: "1.7 to 3.5 electron volts".

More serious: in a book about risky food, Zaidan should really have described how risky trans fats are. And (generally) delved into the controversies surrounding fats, carbohydrates, etc. It would have also been nice to have seen some context comparing dietary risk to other risks. How (for example) does a daily bag of CHEETOS® Crunchy XXTRA FLAMIN' HOT® Cheese Flavored Snacks compare to a daily 20-mile commute, riskwise? I think the oldie-but-goodie The Norm Chronicles is the layman's go-to text here.

Last Modified 2022-02-21 7:13 AM EDT