Label Blunders: Navigating the Ingredient Landscape
SeeArrOh ponders advertising trickery in a chemical world. SeeArrOh is a Ph.D. chemist working in industry.
This morning, I was reading over Carmen Drahl’s Storify collection of “chemical-free” discussions (#altchemicalfree) on Twitter. The recent backlash against the moniker has been covered extensively by ScienceGeist, RSCBlogs, and PLoS Speakeasy Science. After a brief chuckle, I went over to the sink to brush my teeth and happened to glance over at the mouthwash bottle. The top proudly proclaimed “Alcohol-Free!” in large green letters, so I naturally flipped it over: Propylene glycol, sorbitol, and menthol were listed among the ingredients. I understand the company should say “contains no ethanol,” but maybe someone should inform IUPAC that product packagers want to remix the chemical lexicon.
Mass marketing of consumer goods plays on human perception but not always on chemical intuition. Thus, companies will often use a trivial name for a compound to drive sales, without informing the consumer that the definitions don’t paint the whole picture. Take “sugar-free,” which commonly means a product made with no sucrose, or common table sugar. Biologists and chemists name sugars with the suffix “-ose,” which means that fructose, glucose, maltose, and a host of other substitute sweeteners still fall under the category of “sugar.”
Ever see products that claim “No MSG”? Check the label: It’s likely that they instead contain monopotassium glutamate, which generates the same umami taste but without the pesky sodium ion. Same for “low salt” foods that still taste salty, thanks to a variety of calcium and potassium substitutes—which themselves are salts! “Fat-free” chips and baked goods still contain palmitates and stearates, and “100% juice” has vitamins and additives in quantities you wouldn’t see if you actually squeezed the oranges yourself.
Food producers aren’t solely to blame because the easy packaging half-truths extend to other products. “Nitrogen-enhanced” gasoline, which admittedly contains nitrogen-derived detergents, probably hasn’t had actual N2 bubbled into it. Similarly, look for pet sprays and bleaches with “oxygen- power” derived, most likely, from hydrogen peroxide.
So read those labels carefully. Anything that sounds too chemically convenient should be taken with a grain of, well, sodium chloride.