We live in a fascinating, complex chemical world. Smell that cup of coffee and you are sniffing hundreds of compounds! A whiff in the bathroom will add about three hundred, many of them such as methyl mercaptan and skatole decidedly unpleasant. A single meal will dump thousands and thousands of chemicals into your body, ranging from the proteins, sugars and fats that plants produce to allow their growth and development, to the pigments and scents they use to attract pollinators. Add to this the vast array of compounds they use to ward of predators. Indeed, we encounter far more natural pesticides than synthetic ones. We are also exposed to a huge array of chemicals produced by industry such as solvents, dry cleaning compounds, degreasers, paints, plastic additives, pesticides and packaging materials.
Just to present a picture of chemical diversity and complexity, consider something as simple as honey. Everyone knows that basically it is composed of sugar and water. But “sugar” is a general term for a variety of simple carbohydrates, the most familiar of which are sucrose, glucose and fructose. But these are not the only sugars found in honey, not by a long shot. There’s a long list of others that includes raffinose, gentiobiose, maltose, maltulose, kojibiose, nigerose, turanose and many more. Then there are proteins, amino acids and various enzymes that include invertase, which converts sucrose to glucose and fructose and amylase which breaks starch down into smaller units. There’s also; glucose oxidase, which converts glucose to gluconolactone, which in turn yields gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Catalase breaks down the peroxide formed by glucose oxidase to water and oxygen.
Honey also contains trace amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. It also has ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese. Then, depending on what plants the bees have been visiting, there are all sorts of flavonoids, of which one, pinocembrin, is unique to honey and bee propolis. There’s still more. Honey contains organic acids such as acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinic, lactic, malic and pyroglutamic acids. Use the honey to make cake, and you’ll be generating dozens of more compounds, including hydroxymethylfurfural, a potential carcinogen! What a chemical concoction we have here, with a slew of compounds with multisyllabic, hard-to-pronounce names.
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