“Hey, aren’t you somebody?” the teenager queried as I got into the elevator. While I was pondering an appropriate answer to this deeply philosophical question, his crony spilled the beans, “Yeah, he’s that guy who talks about chemistry on TV.” This was the ammunition the philosopher needed. “Oh no, we’re locked in an elevator with a scientist,” he mocked, before volunteering the information that he got about two percent in high school chemistry.

Sadly, I’ve heard such comments before. After many a public lecture I’ve been approached by people who feel the need to tell me with some sort of perverse pride how they slept through science classes or that chemistry was the only course they ever failed. Little wonder that there is mental chaos about chemicals and that “chemical-free” products are hot sellers. But if you are buying a truly chemical-free product — you’re buying nothing.

“It sounds more like a chemical than a food ingredient,” began a recent newspaper report about hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a common flavouring agent in foods. If a food ingredient isn’t a chemical, what is it? Everything in the world is made up of chemicals, which are the building blocks of all matter. The oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the sugar we eat are all chemicals, as are the medications we swallow, the cosmetics we apply and the pesticides we spray. But somehow “chemical” has become synonymous with “toxin” and the term “chemical-free” is now a popular, albeit nonsensical, slogan.

And what exactly does one food producer’s promise to use only “real ingredients” in its pizzas mean? Were they using imaginary ingredients before? “It’s all about the ingredients,” the ad proclaims, “and good food, frozen or not, starts with real ingredients… when you look at an ingredient list you want to see familiar ingredients, not ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

What ingredients are to be removed? Specifically mentioned are sodium steroyl lactylate and sodium ascorbate. Why remove these? Both are approved food additives and have undergone rigorous testing. Sodium steroyl lactylate is an emulsifier used in baked goods such as pizza dough. It disperses the fats in the dough, allowing less fat to be used, while softening the dough’s texture. Since it is made from lactic acid, found in milk, and stearic acid, found in beef tallow, you could call it “natural.” Sodium ascorbate is just the sodium salt of vitamin C and is used as an antioxidant to prevent fat from going rancid. These additives make better dough. Removing them caters to the current wave of chemophobia.

Chemical absurdity has even made it into the courtroom. The prosecutor in a gang fight trial in California described “a situation very much like nitrogen meeting glycerin; it was guaranteed that there would be an explosion of violence.” He probably had some vague recollections about nitroglycerin being a potent explosive. But this substance is not made by combining glycerin with nitrogen. Actually, glycerin meets nitrogen all the time quite peacefully, since nitrogen makes up 80 percent of air!

In a more serious vein, cleanup crews descended on a small town in Arkansas to deal with a toxic emergency caused by a mercury spill. In 1997, a couple of teenagers found a 20-kilogram batch of pure mercury in an abandoned neon light factory and proceeded to have fun with the shimmering substance. They played with it, distributed some to friends, spilled it on the floor at home and at school. As a result, eight homes had to be emptied of furnishings and six students ended up in hospital where they had plenty of time to contemplate the dangers of mercury — dangers they should have learned about in high school chemistry class!