4 Reasons “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” Is Bad Advice

If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.

I’ve heard this adage floating around for as long as I can remember. It’s even so engrained in our culture that a quick google search yields several potential authors of the quote.

“This has lead to an explosion of chemphobia, massive windfalls for the organic and supplement industries and an almost pathological fear of “toxic chemicals in food.” The maxim essentially boils down to chemicals = bad, big words = bad, natural = good, simple = good. If you eat simple things, you’re healthy. If you eat things with hard-to-pronounce ingredients in it, you’re fat, sick and about to die.” -Mike Rothechild (emphasis mine)

But really, this piece of “advice” is one of my biggest pet peeves. (Okay, I have a lot of pet peeves, so that might not be saying much. BUT how often do I write about any of my pet peeves? Case closed. …And we’ll pretend that has nothing to do with the fact that my other pet peeves aren’t as relevant to the topic of this blog. But I digress.)

Anyway, this advice bothers me on several levels. From the severe impracticality to the downright ignorance:

1. Foreign and lesser known foods? No can do.

Quinoa? Jicama? Açai? Aioli? Gyros? All of them are right out. There are plenty of foods that can be difficult to pronounce if you’re not familiar with them. “Whole foods.” Foods that many advocates of this adage would likely feel are perfectly okay (if not very beneficial!) in a balanced diet.

2. Follow that advice and you’ll starve to death.

Seriously. Every single food substance known to man is composed of chemicals. Many of which have difficult to pronounce names. Well, if you haven’t taken any chemistry classes, that is. Take a lemon, for instance. Your garden variety lemon. Take a gander at the chemicals in this lemon:

Even after having taken a chemistry course, there are still a few lemon ingredients I can’t pronounce. I guess I can’t eat lemons anymore!

The point is, everything you eat is made up of many potentially difficult-to-pronounce components. If you really want to live up to this guideline, you would have to stop eating altogether. I doubt the health and wellness crowd would want to promote that prescription!

If you’d like a more nuanced perspective on chemicals and whether they’re good or bad (or both!), what questions you should be asking, and a fun little chemical quiz, you’ll want to check out this article by the aforementioned Mike Rothechild. Seriously. Check out the article.

So those are the obvious two points about why this advice is just bunk. But why does it bother me so much? Well, I think there are bigger problems than just some impracticality floating around behind this motto.

3. Does it insult my intelligence? Your intelligence?

Honestly, I feel that the “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” idea is super insulting.

It assumes that we have no ability to read chemical names out loud, nor can we think critically about any of the substances involved. It leaves no room for nuance. No space for knowledge of the effects (if any) of a given substance, nor space for knowledge of how much needs to be ingested to induce those effects.

Really, it assumes that we can’t think critically about anything. I don’t know about you, but if someone told me to follow this rule, I’d probably be offended (while still understanding they’re probably just trying to help).

4 reasons if you can't pronounce it don't eat it is bad advice

4. There is no magic property that makes a chemical “bad” or “good” (and all chemicals are natural anyway!)

If you get nothing else from this post, please read this section. (Perhaps I should’ve opened with this?)

Chemicals are chemicals are chemicals. In case you missed it in point 2, all foods are made up of chemicals, whether the foods are “whole” or “natural” or not. Period.

One difference between things that are bad (poisonous) for us and those that aren’t is that the chemicals in the poisonous items react with the chemicals in our bodies in a different (unhelpful) way.

The other difference is quantity. Solanine, for example, is a chemical compound found (naturally, I might add) in both nightshade and tomatoes. Nightshade is highly toxic to humans (due to the solanine in it), whereas we all know tomatoes aren’t. The difference between the two? Nightshade has waaaay more solanine in it than tomatoes do.

ALL chemicals originated from natural sources (after all, everything that exists in this world has origins in the natural universe!). Different compounds are made from combining different (natural) chemicals. No matter how whole (or processed!) your food is, it’s made up of natural ingredients. Now, we could talk about highly processed foods as potentially being less healthy for you, but that is an entirely different matter altogether.

BONUS: It reeks of scientific illiteracy and encourages ignorance

5 reasons for the price of 4!

This motto makes the assumption that all chemicals and all big words are all bad all the time, just as mentioned in the quote above. Besides the fact that there is no gray area there, that is a seriously simplistic assumption that is not based on any good logic or scientific evidence!

There are plenty of people out there who follow this adage, and I fear that it encourages them to remain peacefully oblivious to the vast amount of knowledge that could be accessed if they just opted to tap into science’s findings every once in awhile. This includes information on what chemicals are and what might make some of them “good” and others “bad”.

I don’t think you can fault people for their own ignorance sometimes. Especially when they’ve been constantly fed a rule that perpetuates their ignorance! That’s just not okay.

“If you can’t pronounce it then you don’t know enough about chemistry to be telling people what they should and shouldn’t be eating.” – commenter in an online forum

What I’m not saying

I’m not saying all foods are created equal in terms of their healthfulness and ability to nourish us.

I’m not saying that if you can’t follow this method, then there’s no other way to determine what foods would be best for your diet and body.

I’m not saying you’re stupid if you follow this advice.

What I am saying is that:

  • this is a poor guideline to use;
  • there are way better metrics one can use in determining what foods are ideal to eat;
  • not all of those metrics are “rocket science”, or unrealistic for the average person to use;
  • you should educate yourself! Rather than refusing to eat what you can’t pronounce, how about looking up the ingredients in question to learn how they really affect you?

I did my best not to get rant-y in this post. I’m really not much of a rant-y type person, but again, this is about a pet peeve. And we all know pet peeves induce rants. ANYWAY. I hope my restrain worked!

If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it is total bunk

Okay. Maybe that picture is slightly rant-y. I tried.

For further reading

Granted, I’m not a scientist, nor an expert in food science. So here are some resources (some from actual credentialed experts) that may help:

Join the conversation in the comments section below!

  • FYI Friday Linkup w/Pretty Little GrubDo you think “if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” is good advice? I promise I won’t think differently of you if you do!
  • Do you have any other healthy living rules you live by?
  • What’s your biggest pet peeve?

This post has been shared in Pretty Little Grub’s “FYI Friday” link-up! Check it out for more interesting and informative posts.

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