Don’t Worry

People worry about the oddest things. In an era when Americans are living longer than at any point in their history, a lot of them worry that their food and the electronic devices in their homes are somehow conspiring to kill them.

Let’s think about food first and the fear of artificial additives. What exactly is an artificial flavoring, for instance? Well, the short answer is that it is a flavoring produced in a laboratory or factory, rather than one that comes from a plant growing in a field. Well enough. But is there any real physical difference between an artificial flavor and a naturally produced flavor?


For instance, about 200-300 chemical compounds are responsible for the flavor and odor of ripe peaches. By contrast, artificial flavors are at best a simple blend of 10 to 20 chemical compounds. But here’s something that those who worry about the “artificial” flavors fail to realize. Those 10 to 20 chemical compounds that are used to make the artificial peach flavor are identical in chemical composition to those same ten or twenty out of the 300 that appear in real peaches. The only difference is that the artificial flavor is missing the other 170 to 270 chemicals that a peach naturally has. Which is why the artificial flavor may not be as rich or full or as tasty as the real thing. But dangerous? A threat to health? Not at all.

The only difference between an “artificial” chemical and a “natural” chemical is where it was made. Think of it this way: each molecule of water is a compound of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Whether that water molecule falls from the sky or whether you mix a test tube of hydrogen gas and oxygen gas (as I remember doing in one of my high school chemistry classes) what you have in either case is simply water. There’s no way to tell “natural” water apart from “manufactured” water because there is no difference.

The number of chemicals responsible for flavor is considerable. More than 4000 different, naturally occurring, volatile flavor compounds have been identified to date. All the food companies do then is manufacture these chemicals, chemicals that are exactly the same in molecular structure to those that occur naturally in food anyhow. Unfortunately, there are rarely common names for the esoteric stuff that peaches manufacture inside themselves. So if a scientist makes the chemical, rather than a peach, the label has to say “gamma-undecalactone” instead of “sweet, fruity, peachy” flavor. “Benzaldehyde” must go on the label instead of “almond flavor”. And “Methyl salicylate” is printed instead of “wintergreen.”

Likewise, people worry unduly about electronic gadgets like their cell phones, forgetting that the shiny yellow thing in the daytime sky pumps out more radiation in a second than their cell phone will in a year. If they stand in the sunlight for an hour, they’ll get a nice red sunburn. But their ears will never glow a bit if they spend all day talking to Aunt Mildred on their cell phone.

Light bulbs actually pose a greater cancer risk than cell phones. It’s just basic physics—and common sense. The radiation from a cell phone is lower in energy than the electro-magnetic radiation given off by a light bulb. Light is electro-magnetic radiation, but in a band that we can see. The emissions of a cell phone are just a frequency of light that we can’t see – and it is a much lower-energy form of that light.

Everything in the universe gives off electro-magnetic radiation in proportion to its temperature. The hotter it is, the higher the frequency it gives off. Objects in the temperature range of the Earth give off infrared radiation, which is more energetic than radio waves. That’s why infrared is called “heat radiation.” Technically all radiation is heat radiation, but infrared corresponds to the range of heat we usually experience. Hotter things like light bulbs and stars give off visible light.

Everything around you, including your own body (at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), is giving off electro-magnetic radiation that’s more energetic than the kind given off by electronic devices. That is an undeniable physical fact. So it’s just not logical to claim that the lower-energy radiation from a cell phone is more dangerous than the sun that will give you a nasty burn in less than a single afternoon.

So, just relax and enjoy life. You are safer and healthier than your ancestors and your chances of dying of anything are lot less than theirs were.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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