This is the first in our ongoing Kitchen Science series exploring the physics, chemistry and biology that takes place in your home.
Earnest websites, advertisements and well-meaning popular articles routinely warn us about nasty “chemicals” lurking in our homes and kitchens. Many tout the benefits of switching to a “chemical-free lifestyle”.
The problem is: the word “chemical” is entirely misused in these contexts. Everything is a chemical – common table salt (sodium chloride), for instance, and even water (dihydrogen oxide).
The chemicals in our diet are often put into four broad categories: carbohydrates, proteins, fats and lipids, and everything else. This final group has no defining characteristics but includes vitamins, minerals, pharmaceuticals and the hundreds of trace chemicals each of us consumes every day.
Of course, there are toxic and harmful chemicals, but just as many are completely fine for human consumption. So here’s a handy guide to the chemicals in your kitchen and what they mean for your health.
The macronutrient chemicals
Proteins, lipids (such as fats) and carbohydrates are known as the macronutrients. These provide most of our daily energy needs.
Despite 118 known elements in the periodic table, these three categories predominantly contain just four elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – with trace amounts of the remaining elements.
Chemicals called amino acids link together to create proteins. The richest sources include meat and eggs, but significant amounts are also found in beans, legumes and wheat flour.
Carbohydrates contain just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, all connected in very particular ways. “Carbs” include sugars, starch and cellulose, all of which are digested differently.
While sugars are one type of carbohydrate, artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, are not actually carbohydrates.
Despite concerns about the health effects of artificial sweeteners, the health spotlight has recently been on the natural sweeteners: the sugars. White sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup (a mixture of fructose and glucose) have been linked to a range of widespread health conditions.
Just like carbs, fats only contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, but gram for gram release more than twice the dietary energy of either protein or the carbs. Perhaps it’s for this reason fats have copped a lot of bad press for longer than the sugars. Nevertheless, some fat is essential for a healthy diet.
Acids and bases
Acid sounds bad. But there are many acids sitting benignly in our pantries and fridges.
Consider varieties of food and drink that are acidic. A classic example we often hear is that Coca-Cola has a pH value of about 3.2 (lower means more acidic, with 7 being neutral). That’s strong enough to remove rust from metal. And it’s true, thanks to the phosphoric acid in Coke.
As it happens, the human stomach also contains phosphoric acid (as well as hydrochloric acid), and this has an even stronger acidic pH value. Actually, apples and oranges have a similar pH value to Coke, and lemon juice is ten times more acidic.
The acidic characteristics of food and drink combine with other chemicals to provide flavour. Without some acidic character, many foods would be bland.
Chemically speaking, the opposite of acidic is known as basic, or alkali. While acidic substances have a pH of less than 7, basic foods have a pH greater than 7. Examples of basic foods from the kitchen are fewer, but include eggs, some baked products like cakes and biscuits, and bicarb soda.
Toxic chemicals in the kitchen
Obviously, there are also toxic chemicals lurking in our kitchen cupboards. But these are usually kept under the sink and often have pH values at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
Cleaning products such as ammonia and lye (i.e. Drano) are very basic. Soaps and detergents are also at the basic end of the scale.
Acidic cleaning solutions are also common, such as concentrated sulfuric acid, which can also be used to unblock drains.
Cooking is chemistry
Cooking itself is really just chemistry. Heating, freezing, mixing and blending are all processes used in the laboratory and the kitchen.
When we cook food, a myriad of different physical and chemical processes simultaneously take place to transform the ingredients (i.e. chemicals) involved.
Carbohydrates are an interesting case study. Simple sugars combine with proteins in the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for browning food when it’s cooked. Add a little more heat and caramelisation takes over, while too much heat for too long leads to burnt flavours.
Starch is another carbohydrate well known for its ability to create gels, such as in a panna cotta. Upon heating, powdered starch combines with water and a completely different texture is created.
So next time you hear someone say “I don’t like to put chemicals into my body”, feel free to chuckle. Everything is made of chemicals. We’d be in a bit of strife without chemicals, not least in the kitchen.
This article is part of the Kitchen Science series, exploring the amazing physics and chemistry going on in our kitchens every day. If you’re an academic with an idea for a Kitchen Science article, get in touch!
Chemistry studies the properties of matter and energy and how they interact with each other. In fact physics is also defined in the same way. Chemistry and physics are an integral part of physical science. Chemistry specifically studies the properties of the substances and their interactions with different types of matter, especially when they involve electrons.
Importance of chemistry?
By understanding the various aspects of chemistry, you can understand many things about the world around you. You can also understand about how things work and what you can do to solve simple problems related to your home environment. For example, if you have a stain on your white shirt; you can use lime or baking soda to remove the stain. These are some of the chemical formulae or properties that you can apply in your daily life.
There are several other things that are interesting to know like laundry detergent works well in hot water, or you can preserve food using vinegar or by pickling it, or you can store peas by freezing them. So, if you know the basic properties of chemistry, then you can put them to everyday use very easily. For example, instead of buying tooth whiteners, you can simply use sodium bicarbonate and mix some water to make a thick paste. You can use this mixture with your regular toothpaste to whiten your teeth. You can use substances like vinegar, lime juice or soda to remove stains from your clothes. You can use soda mixture to remove stains from the floor.
Chemistry in everyday life
Chemistry is all around you if you notice. Chemical reactions are taking place within our body, and outside in our natural environment all the time. However, we may not know about it unless we study or read about them, and then understand them. Most of the chemical reactions are not visible to our naked eye.
Also read:Math in everyday life
Here is how chemistry is used in everyday life:
The way a plastic wrap protects your food and how it is extracted from polymers is all part of chemistry. In fact, polymers is the next biggest industry to textiles in the United States.
Obesity is such a big problem in the United States, and it is also a result of the chemical reactions taking place inside your body. Or rather, obesity is caused due to the absence of certain chemical reactions. Every single medication that you take when sick is made out of chemicals, and they react chemically inside the body. That is why they are able to cure the illness or disease.
Glass is a simple substance that is actually made using sand, lime and soda ash. There are hundreds of varieties of glass available, and they are all made using different compositions of these substances. Glass is very important as it is used in many places and making objects including, cars, vehicles, microscopes and anything you can think of.
Fermentation that you see in food items is a chemical process. Many day to day products like cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, and hundreds of products made from milk are due to a chemical process. Also, there are several kinds of cheese that can be made from a single chemical reaction.
How is chemistry applied to life ?
Chemistry is basically the study of everyday chemicals that are very much present around us and available, and that which can be applied in real life. These chemicals can be applied in many ways like in the kitchen. The kitchen is the ideal lab where people can experience various chemical reactions and even study them. They need not do anything special. They can simply do what they do in the kitchen everyday and still observe the chemical reactions that occur.
Also read:Science in everyday life
A simple task like boiling of water is a chemical reaction. We all know that water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade. When we boil water everyday, we can observe this.
Tamarind is a simple ingredient used in cooking in several dishes. It gives that extra tangy taste that you are looking for. However, when you cook or store tamarind in aluminum container, it releases certain types of chemicals into foods. When you learn about this, you would avoid cooking tamarind based substances in aluminum vessels, or storing tamarind in an aluminum container. A saturation point is when the water cannot dissolve anymore sugar or salt. This is why food ends up tasting very salty or sweet as it can take in no sugar or salt.
Checking the temperature when we feel feverish using a thermometer is a simple chemical process we do sometimes. The mercury in the thermometer rises if the body temperature is high. When we touch certain chemicals like chlorine we can burn the skin. This is because of the chemical properties of these chemicals that are causing this burning sensation.
Chemistry comes in use for killing pests and rodents at home. When we use naphthalene balls at home we are using a product of chemistry. Many of us use pickling as a method to preserve vegetables. Pickling is a simple chemical process that involves the process of osmosis.
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