Issue Date: June 25, 2012
A Harsh Look At Chemicals
Today, many consumers wary of exposure to synthetic compounds are on the hunt for “chemical-free” products for their homes. But, in hopes of boosting their health, improving their looks, or prolonging their lives, they actively seek out specific chemicals to ingest or rub on their bodies when shopping in the health and beauty aid aisles. It is this second category of substances that Gagik G. Melikyan explores in his book “Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Antioxidants, Foods, Supplements, and Cosmetics.”
Melikyan, a chemistry professor at California State University, Northridge, presents two central themes. One is a concept often lost on the public at large—that consuming some substances found in nature can be as detrimental to the human body as exposure to hazardous synthetic compounds.
A second theme is that people should question the veracity of claims that certain “natural” products will improve their health or extend their lives. Consumers need to ensure these products don’t cause a positive change in one part of the body and wreak damage elsewhere, either directly or via metabolites, according to Melikyan.
Melikyan is annoyed that consumers are left to make decisions they aren’t qualified to make. He writes, “Why are the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and other federal and state agencies, so cautious about allowing people to buy medicine in Canada, or use generic versions of blockbuster drugs, and yet, at the same [time], so unimaginably lax, and irresponsive when it comes to food supplements?”
The author takes an in-depth look at the biochemical activity of dietary supplements, antioxidants, food and cosmetic preservatives, sunscreens, and hair dyes, among other compounds. He raises questions about whether these substances, when processed in the body, may cause harm. He urges people to evaluate claims made about antioxidants, certain foods or beverages, and supplements and provides a list of questions for them to ask. Melikyan firmly backs the notion of precaution, especially in the case of natural products that are complex mixtures of chemicals.
He even examines an aqueous mixture that is almost sacred to many: coffee. He dares argue that people should forgo drinking java until scientists can show explicitly and independently that every chemical in coffee and all metabolites are safe for long-term consumption. He brushes off people’s passion for coffee. “There was life before coffee, and there will be life after it,” Melikyan states.
Tea doesn’t get a pass from him either. “I am concerned that tea, a physiologically active natural extract, is made readily available to the general public,” he writes. “Maybe its consumption should be more restricted, more controlled, and scientifically monitored?”
Scientists, he contends, can do better than nature by finding safer, alternative means for making caffeine available to the public. However, this reviewer thinks coffee and tea drinkers might prefer making their own informed choices.
Melikyan’s attacks on coffee and tea are just a warm-up for his mind-boggling policy conclusions, which he acknowledges will invite intense criticism.
First, he advocates for eliminating phenolic and benzenoid compounds from the human diet. These substances are found in a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, peanuts, and grilled meats. Melikyan’s suggestion also means life without chocolate!
Achieving this goal, Melikyan writes, “will require significant funding for scientists to understand the structures of the compounds that we have long been consuming.” He does not suggest who might pony up this money.
“Once we have established the structures of all food compounds, their behavior inside the human body, the metabolic pathways, the structures of compounds enzymatically formed inside the body, and their physiological properties, we, as a society, can rest assured knowing that the products that constitute the bulk of the consumer basket are truly safe for consumption,” he continues.
Melikyan further suggests that food science follow the lead of green chemistry by developing food and drinks that eliminate human waste. This, he says, will facilitate digestion and “relieve the body systems from an enormous amount of meaningless work.” He predicts that critics will attack this idea as against natural design but argues that scientists are supposed to challenge existing paradigms. This reviewer suspects that physicians, physiologists, and others trained in biological and medical sciences will respond with well-grounded scientific and ethical arguments against this plan.
More realistically, Melikyan calls for regulation of supplements as drugs. “The only way to adequately protect the public is to require FDA approval for every food supplement on the market that should be preceded by the full structural characterization of all components present and comprehensive metabolic and toxicological studies,” he writes.
Furthermore, Melikyan argues that supplements should be available only by prescription. This, he reasons, would allow control of their consumption and provide monitoring, reporting, and analysis of their effects on human health.
In its presentation and style, Melikyan’s book is uneven. On the positive side, molecular and reaction schematics are clear and well labeled. Melikyan carefully backs up his statements with references, which are listed as endnotes for each chapter.
But a bulk of the book reads like transcripts of either passionate oral arguments or lectures presented to a university chemistry class. Neither translates well to the written page.
Moreover, the book is in dire need of an editor. Melikyan’s convictions are palpable—but grammatical errors, virtually verbatim repetitions of text a few pages apart, and excessive (and sometimes incorrect) use of commas are barriers to convincing readers that his arguments are compelling. A case in point is this sentence: “It is not fair to betray the public and not provide them with reliable, science-based information at the right time, before they consume another ‘pill’ bottle believing that this is the right track to longevity.”
Meanwhile, a statement on the back flap of the book’s jacket asserts, “This book is written by a professional, and for the general public. The analysis, wording, and writing style are made understandable to a layperson, to the highest extent possible.”
This claim, like some made by the marketers of supplements Melikyan attacks, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Readers of “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” will need solid grounding in chemistry to grasp (and perhaps take issue with) the scientific arguments Melikyan lays out. He fails to deliver to his target audience.
Passages in the book often take a steep dive from easy-to-understand language to highly technical or scientific wording. For instance, a chapter on “Human Enzymes Involved in Food Processing” begins appropriately enough: “The word ‘enzyme’ neither belongs to a vocabulary of a layperson, nor does it qualify as a household name.” Melikyan proceeds to describe enzymes as “very large organic molecules consisting of long chains of amino acids.” This presumes that the reader understands what “organic” means in chemistry as opposed to the produce aisle, what large molecules are, what amino acids are, and what chains of molecules are. The average Joe or Jane Layperson to whom the book is directed needs explanations of these terms.
Within two pages of the enzyme description, Jane or Joe might put the book down for good when confronted with this sentence: “Isolation of an enzyme in an homogenous form is usually followed by an intense structural study in order to elucidate its intimate molecular structure, i.e., which amino acids are present, in which order they are linked to each other, and what is the spatial, three-dimensional structure of the enzyme.”
Yet sprinkled through dense wordings and technical explanations are clear, bottom-line arguments.
“If a particular component in, say, food or plant extract[s] has demonstrated some valuable properties in test tubes (in vitro), we need to check if the same compound, inside the body, preserves its chemical integrity, or not,” Melikyan writes. “Unless it has been convincingly demonstrated, preferably, by the qualified independent parties, we should not jump to conclusions and advise everybody, on TV and through print media, to use some particular food, or plant extract, and expect miraculous results.”
Cheryl Hogue is a senior correspondent at C&EN.
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