Debunking with Chemistry and Humor in ‘Ingredients’

Book review: Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and On Us, by George Zaidan (Amazon / Book Depository)

George Zaidan, an MIT-trained chemist, calls himself a “science translator”, so someone who helps make scientific concepts and literature more understandable for the layperson. This is a concept in popular science that I really appreciate, and Zaidan employs a humorous slant like those in Bad Science or The Angry Chef that helps make a book on chemistry, which could be a slog otherwise, memorable and fun to read.

Zaidan has done a number of projects that help communicate scientific concepts in accessible ways, including a series of popular videos for National Geographic. In Ingredients he focuses on the chemical components that make up items like coffee, sunscreen, cheetos, and whatever goes into vape pens (a lot, a lot goes into vape pens). He examines whether these deserve the bad sides of their reputations and how we can understand the data around that.

He also looks at why we get whiplash reading contradictory studies about many of these ingredients. Coffee is such a major one in this area — just while writing this, I was scanning the NY Post (don’t judge!) and came across yet another coffee study, this time about which way is better for you and which way is more likely to kill you, or something. What books like Ingredients help so much with is how to understand the world of nuance inherent in these stories and studies that journalists don’t often incorporate, sometimes because they forgivably don’t understand it themselves, but which means there are crucial caveats that go with this information that the average reader won’t know.

It’s written conversationally and punctuated frequently with jokes. Maybe a bit too frequently. Although one did make me laugh so hard I almost dropped the book (he imagines a conversation between a chemist and an all-natural, chemical-hating hippie-type with a “my body is a temple” attitude and it is just so, so funny) so maybe it’s a draw.  For the most part I found the humor a bit heavy-handed but appreciated the light tone and clear explanations.

Unfortunately, not too much of the information itself was new to me, having already read books like the ones mentioned above that explain why we can’t just accept the information in studies without considering a wealth other factors that may have influenced the results. Zaidan does drive this important point home well with more examples — some of which, like the frequency of basic errors, were pretty shocking — and this is useful for anyone who wants to better understand how to interpret statistics and why you can’t take news stories and health-related headlines at face value without some deeper thinking.

It also feels a bit frustrating that often there’s just not enough comprehensive data, or the ability to implement the right controls, or the time and conditions to understand long-term effects, to really get definitive answers to any of this. As usual, the answer is moderation in everything and he’s honest and straightforward in admitting that uncertainty isn’t the exciting answer most people want to hear but it’s what we have. He even takes a brief look at a study done around prayer in healthcare, and please, do a whole book on that one next.

Entertaining while still shedding some light on areas that all too often suffer from a flood of misinformation.

Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and On Us
by George Zaidan
published April 14, 2020 by Dutton

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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