Today a woman told me her dietitian advised her not to eat a food if it’s label contained ingredients whose names she could not pronounce. This is really bad advice, and I would be surprised and disappointed if it actually came from a registered dietitian. This bit of nonsense is based on the appeal to nature fallacy: the popular but ignorant belief that everything “natural” is good for you and everything “unnatural” is not, and chemophobia, the irrational fear of chemicals and belief they are unnatural and should be avoided. Natural does not always mean good. “Unnatural” or synthetic does not always mean bad. Chemicals can be either natural or synthetic and either good or bad for you, depending on various factors.
A chemical is any substance with a specific molecular composition. Chemicals can be either natural or synthetic, but this does not equate to healthy or unhealthy. Either type can be healthy or harmful. Botulinum toxin is natural, but it only takes a few dozen micrograms to kill a person. HIV is natural, but you probably don’t want it on your salad, either. On the other hand, the synthetic food additive and solvent propylene glycol is perfectly safe for consumption in typical amounts (you could eat over 2,000 mg per pound of bodyweight and still not have any toxic effect).
Which brings me to another bit of nonsense at the root of a lot of bad nutritional advice: the belief that a substance is harmful if it is an ingredient in something that might be harmful. Propylene glycol is an ingredient in anti-freeze and hair products which are harmful to consume, but propylene glycol itself is not harmful in the amounts typically contained in food products. Water is also an ingredient in anti-freeze and hair products and has the dangerous-sounding chemical name dihydrogen monoxide, but nobody is going to stop drinking water because of it.
I should also point out the toxicity of a substance, whether natural or synthetic, also depends on the dose. Even relatively benign substances like water can kill you if you consume enough of it, while relatively toxic chemicals can be consumed without negative effects if the dose is small enough.
Your body is made of chemicals. All of the food you eat, including so-called “organic” stuff , is made of chemicals. Protein? Chemicals. Fats? Chemicals. Carbs? Chemicals. Vitamins? Yes, also chemicals. The only way you can avoid consuming chemicals would be to not eat or drink at all, which is really bad for your health. Going for as little as three days without drinking water, which is the chemical dihidrogen monoxide, will kill you.
Many of the other natural chemicals that make up our food also have names which many people are unfamiliar with and may find difficult to pronounce. For example, nicotinamide riboside, pyridoxamine, and hydroxocobalamin are the chemical names for vitamins B3, B6, and B12. These are healthy to consume regardless of whether you can pronounce their names correctly, and just like the ominous sounding dihidrogen monoxide, there are serious health consequences for not consuming enough of these.
Instead of telling the woman not to eat a food if she can’t pronounce the names of some of it’s ingredients, her dietitian (if the person was, in fact, a dietitian) should have told her that if she doesn’t recognize an ingredient she should put a little time and effort into learning about it using reputable sources of information. That way she can make informed decisions about what she eats and drinks instead of being mislead by popular but ignorant beliefs.