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.


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.


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.


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?

Moronic acid, windowpane, curious chloride and other silly substance names

My recent post on arsenic got me thinking about silly chemical names.  There are, in fact, asilly atom number of compounds that contain arsenic that chemists have clearly named with great glee.  In fact it seems quite likely that some of them were even deliberately synthesized purely for the opportunity to get a naughty-sounding word into a chemical name.  But it goes way beyond arsenic: there are many, many molecules with quite frankly ridiculous names.

So with such childishness in mind, here’s my top ten of silly substances:

1.  Adamantane
I have to confess that when I first met this molecule at university I though the lecturer was adamantanejoking.  He wasn’t, this rather odd-looking cycloalkane is a real molecule.  It’s existence was first suggested in 1924 but it wasn’t actually made until 1941 – either way it preceded the 1980s pop star by some years.  The arrangement of the atoms in adamantane is like those in diamond, and that’s where its name comes from: the Greek adamantinos, meaning relating to diamond or steel.  In itself adamantane doesn’t have many uses, but its derivatives are important in drug synthesis.

2.  Megaphone
YES THERE REALLY IS A MOLECULE CALLED MEGAPHONE!  It gets its name not because it’s loud, but because it’s extracted from the plant Aniba megaphylla.  It’s interesting because it has been shown to inhibit the growth of certain tumour cells.

3.  Arsole
Please remember I didn’t come up with this, it’s a real molecule.  It contains, not arsolesurprisingly, arsenic and has the rather simple formula of C4H4AsH in, ho ho, a ring-shaped structure.  It’s actually never been isolated experimentally itself but, and this just gets better and better, a class of similar molecules called arsoles have been investigated.  Arsole bonded to a benzene ring would be called benzarsole.  Ok I’ll stop now.

4.  Moronictraumaticerotic and diabolic acids
Not one, but a collection of acids (and there are more than these four with silly names, but we don’t want to be here all day).  The ‘ic’ ending for organic acids has provided rich fodder.  Moronic acid rather boringly gets its name from the Mora excelsa tree, from which it was isolated.  Traumatic acid actually gets its name from what it does – it’s a wound hormone that helps plants to repair damage.  Erotic acid is really called orotic acid, but it’s been misspelled so often that erotic acid has become an accepted name for it.  Diabolic acids are actually a class of compounds, named after the Greek diabollo, meaning to mislead, since they were particularly difficult to isolate.

On the subject of acids, honourable mention must also go to the wonderfully-named triflic acid, which sounds like something you might extract from a triffid.  It’s not obviously, but it’s still quite interesting stuff, being one of the strongest acids.  In fact it’s a superacid, which makes it sound a bit like a superhero’s deadly nemesis.

5.  Cummingtonite
This sounds like the sort of tortured name someone might invent for cocktail happy hour, but in fact it’s a greeny-brown mineral with the rather spectacular formula of (Mg,Fe)7Si8O22(OH)2.  It gets its name from the town of Cummington, Massachusetts (wouldn’t you love to live there?), where it was first discovered in 1824.

6.  Windowpane FSTRANE
You have to love this one.  The molecule actually looks like a child’s drawing of a window.  It’s more properly called fenestrane (from the Latin word for window, fenestra), and while it’s never been synthesised itself a version with a corner carbon missing has been made and, naturally, goes by the name ‘broken window’.

7.  Curious chloride
Isn’t this just the cutest thing?  Someone should write a children’s book.  CmClis more properly named curium trichloride but ‘curious’, or ‘curous’, is the trivial name for curium compounds.  A concentrated solution of curious chloride would be radioactive enough to boil itself if left alone.  Maybe not so child-friendly, then.

8.  Welshite welshite
Funny to us Brits, probably meaningless to an American, this reddish-black mineral was named after Wilfred R. Welsh, an amateur mineralogist from New Jersey.  He was a president of the Franklin Mineral Museum and this mineral was named in his honour by one of his former students.

9.  Fucitol
This sounds like something a student might say at the end of a long Friday in the laboratory, and funnily enough it’s also an alcohol.  It’s officially known, more boringly, as L-fucitol, 6-deoxy-L-galactitol.  It gets its silly-sounding trivial name because it comes from fucose, which is found in a North Atlantic seaweed with the Latin name Fucus vesiculosus (and the almost equally brilliant common name, bladderwrack).

10.  DEAD Diethyl-azodicarboxylate
What else could I end the list with?  DEAD is the apt acronym for diethyl azodicarboxylate.  This wonderful orange stuff is rather unstable: it’s shock sensitive, light sensitive, toxic and a possible carcinogen and will explode violently if its pure form is heated above 100 degrees C.  When it’s mixed with acid and triphenylphosphine the result is called DEADCAT – brilliant.  DEAD used to be used in quite a few chemical syntheses, but thanks to its impressive list of safety hazards these uses are declining.

For even more silly-named molecules, see – what’s your favourite?