Is there any question in modern existence more fraught than “What should I eat?”
Our choices about food can feel insanely consequential. Inundated with contradictory advice, anxious regimens and alarming YouTube videos, it is hard know what to believe. Will coffee slowly kill you, or save you from depression and cancer? Should you avoid butter, or put it on everything?
From the start, George Zaidan’s Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us distinguishes itself from the typical “eat this, not that” manifesto. Diet-related media likes to promise answers, spouting forth inarguable truths: Keto will transform your body and your life! High fructose corn syrup causes obesity! In contrast, Ingredients is about raising questions. The book begins with a bit of common knowledge—eating processed food is bad—and subjects it to scrutiny. How bad is it, exactly? How much life does every additional Cheeto suck from your body?
Ingredients is about the complex process of figuring out how to answer this question. In other words, instead of offering up faddish nutritional spin, or dishing out sanctimonious vagaries like, “Eat real food,” Zaidan does something different—and much more worthwhile. He guides you through how scientists assess the risks and safety of chemicals: how they establish the links between health effects and their causes, and how they sometimes get it wrong.
The result is a romp through the scenic highways of the scientific method and the murky swamplands of scientific evidence. After reading this book, when you encounter headlines like “Blueberries Shown to Prevent Cancer” or “Processed Food Increases Risk of Death by 14%,” you’ll have a much better understanding of how seriously to take them.
You may recognize Zaidan from his stint co-hosting CNBC’s reality show “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor.” As a science communicator, his writing and videos have been featured in The New York Times, NPR and TED-Ed. Ingredients takes off from his current National Geographic webseries of the same name, where he zanily explores the science of everyday stuff, like “What’s in air freshener?” and “What makes gum chewy?”
Zaidan brings the same hyperkinetic, super-digressive, uber-nerd sensibility to his writing. After reading this book, I know more about aphid poop than I care to admit, can tell you how cyanide kills and am aware that the distinctive, summertime aroma of swimming pools is not the smell of chlorine but of chlorine mixed with pee (ew).
For a title that gleefully veers into the technical aspects of statistics and organic chemistry, it’s a breezy read. Zaidan has a gift for punching up hard science with goofball details without sacrificing substance. Does the jocularity sometimes feel a little excessive? Sure. Personally, I could have done without a few of the (multiple!) references to spoof Harry Potter porno Hairy Smallballer and the Failure to Bone. But it’s a rare book that can compare achieving statistical significance in an experiment to reaching orgasm and still leave you feeling like you’ve learned something useful.
Ultimately, Ingredients teaches us how to be informed, skeptical consumers of scientific news—and how to appreciate the gradual, cumulative, collective effort of scientific research. “Science proceeds slowly and erratically,” Zaidan writes. “If you’re on the outside looking in, trying to figure out what’s true can be insanely frustrating. But once a super-solid Bridge of Truth is constructed, it’s a beautiful thing, just like the process that created it: science.”