Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Review: 'Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us' by George Zaidan

Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us by [Zaidan, George]

Ingredients is misleading. You could be forgiven for thinking it is a book about what goes into our food, about how chemicals interact with each other and our organs, or comparing the damage done by alternating, well, ingredients. It is none of those.

George Zaidan has instead written a book about data. The ingredients he’s writing about are the data that go into and come out of scientific studies of consumption. From every conceivable angle, he shows that scientific studies are faulty and can be legitimately criticized. Garbage in, garbage out. That decisions should not be made on the basis of a single study. That fraud, incompetence, forgetfulness, bad math, preconceived notions and garden-variety malice can all play significant roles in the outcomes cited in scientific studies.

As such, the book is a terrific educational tool, thickening the skin of readers who like to peruse and believe the health, fitness and food pages on the internet. Forewarned is forearmed. He shows that coffee alone has been the subject of endless thousands of studies, which have claimed to show cause and effect with the full range of health, from glowing to early death. If you like chemical bond drawings of compounds and dissecting full studies — and not just the topline summaries you get in internet news — this is a helpful introduction.

Except it’s weird too. Zaidan loves swear words. He seems to prefer them to scientific words. For example, he has two words for feces: poop and s-it. They make an odd couple, especially in the context of scientific studies. It might be the new level of presidential language, but it still stops the eye in a science book. He also likes dropping pop cultural references into explanations, which cuts down the number of readers who can understand what he’s writing.

So while it might be valuable for those who are serious about their food science, it seems to be written for 16 year-olds, who pay no mind to the process of making Cheetos (a favorite reference throughout the book. It is also the cover image). But then, there’s lots of humor, too. Often just corny. He likes making absurd juxtapositions to show that no one would ever think such a thing. He also enjoys making up absurd titles to fictitious studies. So I’m not really sure who the audience is for Ingredients.

There is no question Zaidan did the research. He did. He says he read north of a thousand papers to put the book together. He interviewed famous names like Willett and Ioannidis. And Zaidan himself has a track record in the field. He also spends a lot of time explaining how much of an old-style nerd he is personally. So it’s not a slapdash effort. It’s just garishly overdecorated.

There are precious few non-data takeaways in the book. The only one I can remember now was that indoor swimming pool smell (It gets its own chapter, disconnected from everything) is not just chlorine in water. That doesn’t smell like a swimming pool. No, only human excretions mixed with chlorine and water produce that smell. That’s why they insist on chlorine to begin with. That you smell it means people have not been totally — considerate.

There is also a non-food chapter wrapped around sunscreen creams. It doesn’t seem to break any new ground though. Sunscreen works, but only what it’s meant to do, not what sunworshippers think it does.

The conclusion from all this is that highly processed foods might do you no good, but science has not achieved the exalted level of proving they will kill you, either. Oh, maybe shorten your life a year or so, but nothing to get hung up on. A toast to Cheetos, then.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.