Field of Science

Formaldehyde: not just for dead things

Next spring I'm teaching a course on the physical chemistry of food while a colleague is teaching a course on the analytical chemistry of foodstuffs.  Among other science texts we'll be using John Coupland's Introduction to the Physical Chemistry of Food, but I'm also collecting short pieces to put some of the work into a historical and social context.

These aren't actual biological specimens preserved
in formaldehyde, but Halloween decorations.  
Though these days we tend to think of chemists as the untrustworthy creators of toxic, artificial everything, the systematic training of chemists was driven in part by the desire for the public to know what was in their food and water.  In 19th century Britain, hundreds of chemists made their living testing the purity of everything from butter to well water.  So when the Food Babe tells you there is something "yucky" in your food, the reason we know it is there is some chemist developed a careful protocol for its analysis, and other chemists tested the material.
Molecular structure
of formaldehyde

I've been thinking about formaldehyde, one of the simplest organic molecules (to a chemist, organic means made up mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and has nothing to do with whether the molecule is synthetic or natural or...). Last year, formaldehyde, which is a preservative, was in the news because Johnson & Johnson had agreed to remove it from baby shampoo, though as Matt Hartings and Tara Haelle clearly pointed out in a piece at Slate, it was in such low concentrations that it posed no risk to babies (who, they point out, themselves contain substantial amounts of formaldehyde.)

Pepsi is reformulating Diet Pepsi to take out the artificial sweetener aspartame. The Food Babe is crowing that she and her army have forced Kraft to remove the so-called coal tar dyes (e.g. tartrazine/FD&C Yellow 5), to be replaced by natural colorings from spices.  What does all this have do do with formaldehyde?

From the Food Babe's 'campaign' literature.

To start with those natural colorings - at least one of them used in the UK version of mac and cheese, beta-carotene, isn't extracted from natural sources but synthesized from petroleum feedstocks (just like those coal-tar dyes).  One of the starting materials:  formaldehyde. The other natural colorings on the table — annatto, turmeric and paprika — are not quite what you might think either.  While you might imagine shaking in some spices from a quaint bottle, the spices themselves are not used as colorants, the colorants are extracted using organic (not that kind of organic, the chemist's kind of organic) solvents, such as ethyl acetate.  It's unclear to me why these colorants, particularly beta-carotene pass muster with the Food Babe.

Aspartame is sometimes vilified because it is metabolized into methanol and formaldehyde in the body.  Which it is.  You already contain a lot of formaldehyde, about 12 milligrams per liter of fluid in your cells.  One source is metabolism of the amino acids, particularly, serine and glycine (in naturally occurring proteins), from which your body scavenges methyl groups (CH3) to pop on to various structures.  Aspartame is a very tiny protein, so the same pathways that produce methanol and formaldehyde from natural sources, dismantle aspartame to yield methanol and formaldehyde, though the amounts produced are tens of times lower than what comes from eating apples and fish.

Because formaldehyde occurs naturally in foods (about 5 mg per serving in some fruits, fish is also high, pectin containing fruits such as apples add significantly to the amount of formaldehyde ingested), our bodies have a mechanism for dealing with it, we process about 60 to 100 grams of formaldehyde a day and do so quickly.  Formaldehyde has a half-life of about 1 to 2 minutes in the body.

Why are those spices colored?  What does it have to do with quantum mechanics, flamingos and canaries?  Read this post, the very first one written for the blog,  to find out.

EFSA report on endogenous versus exogenous sources of formaldehyde.
EFSA review of curcurmin, a component of turmeric, which had been suspected of being genotoxic.


  1. Good information!

  2. "It's unclear to me why these colorants, particularly beta-carotene pass muster with the Food Babe."

    At a guess, it's because beta-carotene sounds like it comes from carrots and so is perceived as healthy and natural. Likewise colorants isolated from spices are confused with the spices themselves and perceived as healthy and natural. (And "healthy" and "natural" are synonyms, to some...)


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