Is a noxious gas really being added to your food?

Daniel Rutherford named nitrogen "noxious air".

Daniel Rutherford named nitrogen “noxious air”.

Today I’m writing about a potentially dangerous, but surprisingly rarely discussed, substance. It’s a gas at room temperature, with a molecular mass of 28. It sits next to oxygen in the periodic table, but these two could not be more different. When it was discovered by Daniel Rutherford in 1972 he named it ‘noxious air’. Other scientists called it ‘burnt air’, ‘mephitic air’, and ‘azote’ – from the Greek word meaning lifeless – because animals died when they were exposed to it. Today we call it nitrogen.

Let me tell you more. It’s an industrial chemical which is used to make fertilisers and explosives, and to fill tyres. Does that sound like something that you should be exposed to on a daily basis?

Nitrogen is used to fill aeroplane and car tyres.

Nitrogen is used to fill aeroplane and car tyres.

Well I’ve got news for you, you are. Nitrogen is in the air around us. That’s right, this gas which, let me reiterate, was discovered when it was found to kill small animals, is all around us. The concentration of it is fairly stable now, but it has increased dramatically in Earth’s past.

NitrogenRencer

A nitrogen molecule. Not actual size.

Breathing air with more than about 0.8 bar partial pressure will make you really ill or even kill you and yet, pure nitrogen is regularly used to package our foods. Those salad bags you thought were so fresh and healthy? Full of pure nitrogen. That nitrogen is obtained by a process known as fractional distillation. Petrol, diesel and bitumen – the stuff used to cover our roads – are produced by exactly the same method.

Nitrogen is invisible, tasteless and odourless, and companies don’t have to label it on their packaging. Some of the more reputable manufacturers do state that their food is ‘packaged in a protective atmosphere’, but since there is no regulation to force companies to include this label, its absence is no guarantee. You could be eating nitrogen-drenched lettuce right now, and you’d have no idea. And for those salad-dodgers out there breathing a sigh of relief, crisps (chips, for my American readers) are also packaged in this stuff.

Nitrogen can be used in food preparation.

Nitrogen is often used in over-priced food preparation.

It gets worse. When it’s cooled nitrogen becomes a liquid, and this form is also used in food preparation. Some chefs have famously used it to make gourmet ice-cream. But in its liquid form nitrogen is even more dangerous. It’s extremely volatile. Exposure to liquid nitrogen causes severe and painful burns which can leave permanent scars. People who need to handle it should wear thick, industrial-strength gloves and eye protection. It’s so dangerous that one Australian liquor authority recently ordered bars to stop serving drinks containing liquid nitrogen after a patron became seriously ill.

Surely we should be asking the question: should something this harmful REALLY be involved in food preparation at all, anywhere in the world?

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The Food Doll. She knows about this stuff.

Health food campaigners and ‘wellness warriors’ are increasingly setting their sites on this new menace. In an interview, ‘Food Doll’ Eyna Noscience said, “During my research into this stuff I found out that food companies sometimes mix it with carbon dioxide, and we all know that’s killing the ozone layer. We should all be campaigning for better labelling.”

She went on to add: “It’s a pnictogen. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds suspiciously like carcinogen to me. Nothing that unpronounceable can be good for you, right? I always say, if you can’t read it, you shouldn’t be eating it. Or breathing it.”

The spectrum of nitrogen. It's totally irrelevant but it is pretty.

The spectrum of nitrogen. It’s totally irrelevant but it is pretty.

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Cease the Ugly Nitrogen Terror campaigners staged a peaceful demonstration, and were arrested for “offensive slogans” (not shown).

Despite clearly knowing nothing whatsoever about anything, it’s possible that Eyna Noscience has a point. Perhaps consumers should have the choice over whether they want to buy products saturated with nitrogen? The organisation Cease the Ugly Nitrogen Terror certainly think so. They recently held a peaceful demonstration outside a well-known supermarket in London. Several of their supporters, who were holding placards bearing the initials of the organisation, were arrested for allegedly “offensive slogans”. Clearly yet another example of the food industry having far too much power.

What do you think? Should nitrogen be banned from foods? Leave your comments below.

GNU Terry Pratchett.

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Note: now, in case it’s not entirely obvious, this post is a joke (I say this because some people have asked me, believe it or not). But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. After I wrote this I found out that the ‘Food Babe’, aka Vani Hari, had actually written a post (she has since deleted it, but the internet is great for making it difficult to hide such things) in which she demonstrated a fabulous misunderstanding of chemistry and physics. In particular (from here, 6th paragraph):

“The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.”

I don’t know about everyone else, but personally I’d be a bit worried about a 50% oxygen atmosphere, particularly in an aeroplane. Let’s just hope she’s wrong, eh?

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Green hair and airborne wasabi: the Ig Nobel prizes

Next week on September 12th some extremely important prizes are about to be awarded that will undoubtedly rock the scientific community. Yes indeed, it’s that time again: the annual Ig Nobel prize award ceremony.

I first met the Igs about 15 years ago when I went to a conference in Seattle ig-nobel(yes I’m that old). The talk was a popular one, the Igs being a bit of light relief from all the serious science being discussed. That year there were awards for the development of a suit of armor impervious to grizzly bears, a study on the relationship between height, foot size and penile length (admit it, you’ve always wanted to know) and Jacques Benveniste of France, for his homeopathic ‘discovery’ that not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet (hmm).

So what are they, exactly? Some describe them as parodies of the official Nobel prizes. Home of the Igs AIR, the Annals of Improbable Research, describes them as awards for research that makes people laugh, and then think. Sometimes, as in the case of Benveniste, an Ig is awarded to someone for their, shall we say, excessively creative application of scientific ideas. More often these days they are awarded to scientists who’ve worked on something rather weird and wonderful, but which actually turns out to have some interesting applications.

So, since this is a chemistry blog, what have the last few Ig Nobel Chemistry prizes been awarded for?

2012Johan Pettersson, for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people’s hair turned green.
A great story, this: Several formerly blonde inhabitants of Anderslöv in southern Sweden suddenly acquired new green hairdos. Initially suspicion fell to the water supply, specifically copper contamination, since copper is known to dye hair green. But the problem was only affecting certain households. Testing revealed that copper levels were normal in the water supply itself, however when the water sat in the pipes in some recently-built houses overnight the copper levels rocketed. Why? Copper pipes in the new houses weren’t coated on the inside, so copper was leaching into the water. Residents who’d rather not have green hair have been told to wash their hair in cold water.

2011: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
In this case the title says it all. As anyone that’s ever eaten a lump of that green stuff that comes with sushi knows, if wasabi gets into your nasal passages you know about it. The researchers worked out exactly how much wasabi would need to be in the air for it to be intolerable, and then developed and patented an alarm system that releases that concentration of wasabi in case of emergency. Well, at least it won’t wake up the neighbours.

2010: Eric AdamsScott SocolofskyStephen Masutani, and BPfor disproving the old belief that oil and water don’t mix.
A silly title with a serious motive, oil spills being something of a big deal. A team of scientists conducted controlled discharges of oil and water in the Norwegian sea at a depth of 844 meters and demonstrated that most oil from a spill in the deep ocean would in fact mix with water, rather than rise directly to the surface. The decision to award the prize jointly to BP, given the recent Deepwater Horizon incident, was particularly cutting.

2009: Javier MoralesMiguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castañofor creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.
This might just be my favourite. It sounds ridiculous, and yet they published a serious paper. Scientists have long used various solvent mixtures to grow thin diamond films, and the researchers in this case were experimenting with mixtures of ethanol (‘drinking’ alcohol) and water. They noticed that the mixture that produced the best results had a similar composition to tequila, and so decided to experiment with the alcoholic beverage. It turned out that some types of tequila really did have exactly the right mixture of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to promote growth of the films.

2008: Sharee A. Umpierre, Joseph A. Hill, Deborah J. Anderson and Harvard Medical School, for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and to Chuang-Ye Hong, C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang for discovering that it is not. 
The mind boggles, doesn’t it? There are many myths associated with pregnancy, and what does and doesn’t prevent it. No one would seriously recommend Coca-Cola as a contraceptive. However the first set of researchers decided to look into the question in a little more depth. They tested small samples of sperm with different types of Coca-Cola and found that they did, indeed, kill some sperm. However their results couldn’t be reproduced by the second set of scientists, who concluded that if Coke did have a spermicidal effect it was weak – little different to their control sample. A Coca-Cola spokesperson responded that “we do not promote any of our products for any medical use”. Glad they cleared that up.

You can see the full list of Ig Nobel prize winners here. The 2013 Ig Nobel prizes will be announced on Thursday September 12, 2013. You can join in on Twitter with the hashtag #IgNobel, and there’s also a webcast at 5:30pm EDT, which if my calculations are correct is 10:30am over here in the UK. I wonder what will be recognised this year…