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Can we combat chemophobia ... with home-baked bread?

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This post was inspired by the session at the upcoming ScienceOnline 2013 entitled Chemophobia & Chemistry in The Modern World, to be moderated by Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl

For some reason, a lot of people seem to have an unreasonable fear of chemistry. I'm not just talking about fear of chemistry instruction, but full-on fear of chemicals in their world. Because what people think they know about chemicals is that they go boom, or they're artificial, or they're drugs which are maybe useful but maybe just making big pharma CEOs rich, and maybe they're addictive and subject to abuse. Or, they are seeping into our water, our air, our food, our bodies and maybe poisoning us.

At the extreme, it strikes me that chemophobia is really just a fear of recognizing that our world is made of chemicals. I can assure you, it is!

Your computer is made of chemicals, but so are paper and ink. Snails are made of chemicals, as are plants (which carry out chemical reactions right under our noses. Also carrying out chemical reactions right under our noses are yeasts, without which many of our potables would be less potent. Indeed, our kitchens and pantries, from which we draw our ingredients and prepare our meals, are full of many impressively reactive chemicals.

And here, it actually strikes me that we might be able to ratchet down the levels of chemophobia if people find ways to return to de novo syntheses of more of what they eat -- which is to say, to making their food from scratch.

For the last several months, our kitchen has been a hotbed of homemade bread. Partly this is because we had a stretch of a couple years where our only functional oven was a toaster over, which means when we got a working full-sized oven again, we became very enthusiastic about using it.

As it turns out, when you're baking two or three loaves of bread every week, you start looking at things like different kinds of flour on the market and figuring out how things like gluten content affect your dough -- how dense of a bread it will make, how much "spring" it has in the oven, and so forth.

(Gluten is a chemical.)

Maybe you dabble with the occasional batch of biscuits of muffins or quick-bread that uses a leavening agent other than yeast -- otherwise known as a chemical leavener.

(Chemical leaveners are chemicals.)

And, you might even start to pick up a feel for which chemical leaveners depend on there being an acidic ingredient (like vinegar or buttermilk) in your batter and which will do the job without an acidic ingredient in the batter.

(Those ingredients, whether acidic or not, are made of chemicals. Even the water.)

Indeed, many who find their inner baker will start playing around with recipes that call for more exotic ingredients like lecithin or ascorbic acid or caramel color (each one: a chemical).

It's to the point that I have joked, while perusing the pages of "baking enhancers" in the fancy baking supply catalogs, "People start baking their own bread so they can avoid all the chemicals in the commercially baked bread, but then they get really good at baking and start improving their homemade bread with all these chemicals!"

And yes, there's a bit of a disconnect in baking to avoid chemicals in your food and then discovering that there are certain chemicals that will make that food better. But, I'm hopeful that the process leads to a connection, wherein people who are getting back in touch with making one of the oldest kinds of foods we have can also make peace with the recognition that wholesome foods (and the people who eat them) are made of chemicals.

It's something to chew on, anyway.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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