Let’s Talk About Some of the Chemistry in Our Food

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We may define a food to be any substance which will repair the functional waste of the body, increase its growth, or maintain the heat, muscular, and nervous energy. In its most comprehensive sense, the oxygen of the air is a food; as although it is admitted by the lungs, it passes into the blood, and there re-acts upon the other food which has passed through the stomach. It is usual, however, to restrict the term food to such nutriment as enters the body by the intestinal canal. Water is often spoken of as being distinct from food, but for this there is no sufficient reason.

Many popular writers have divided foods into flesh-formers, heat-givers, and bone-formers. Although attractive from its simplicity, this classification will not bear criticism.

Flesh-formers are also heat-givers. Only a portion of the mineral matter goes to form bone.

Water forms an essential part of all the tissues of the body. It is the solvent and carrier of other substances.

Mineral Matter or Salts, is left as an ash when food is thoroughly burnt. The most important salts are calcium phosphate, carbonate and fluoride, sodium chloride, potassium phosphate and chloride, and compounds of magnesium, iron and silicon.

Mineral matter is quite as necessary for plant as for animal life, and is therefore present in all food, except in the case of some highly-prepared ones, such as sugar, starch and oil. Children require a good proportion of calcium phosphate for the growth of their bones, whilst adults require less. The outer part of the grain of cereals is the richest in mineral constituents, white flour and rice are deficient. Wheatmeal and oatmeal are especially recommended for the quantity of phosphates and other salts contained in them. Mineral matter is necessary not only for the bones but for every tissue of the body.

Organic Compounds are formed by living organisms (a few can also be produced by chemical means). They are entirely decomposed by combustion.

The Non-Nitrogenous Organic Compounds are commonly called carbon compounds or heat-producers, but these terms are also descriptive of the nitrogenous compounds. These contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen only, and furnish by their oxidation or combustion in the body the necessary heat, muscular and nervous energy. The final product of their combustion is water and carbon dioxide (carbonic acid gas).

The Carbohydrates comprise starch, sugar, gum, mucilage, pectose, glycogen, &c.; cellulose and woody fibre are carbohydrates, but are little capable of digestion. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the proportion to form water, the carbon alone being available to produce heat by combustion. Starch is the most widely distributed food. It is insoluble in water, but when cooked is readily digested and absorbed by the body. Starch is readily converted into sugar, whether in plants or animals, during digestion. There are many kinds of sugar, such as grape, cane and milk sugars.

The Oils and Fats consist of the same elements as the carbohydrates, but the hydrogen is in larger quantity than is necessary to form water, and this surplus is available for the production of energy. During their combustion in the body they produce nearly two-and-a-quarter times (4 : 8.9 = 2.225) as much heat as the carbohydrates; but if eaten in more than small quantities, they are not easily digested, a portion passing away by the intestines. The fat in the body is not solely dependent upon the quantity consumed as food, as an animal may become quite fat on food containing none. A moderate quantity favours digestion and the bodily health. In cold weather more should be taken. In the Arctic regions the Esquimaux consume enormous quantities. Nuts are generally rich in oil. Oatmeal contains more than any of the other cereals (27 analyses gave from 8 to 12.3 per cent.)

Vegetable Acids are composed of the same three elements and undergo combustion into the same compounds as the carbohydrates. They rouse the appetite, stimulate digestion, and finally form carbonates in combination with the alkalies, thus increasing the alkalinity of the blood. The chief vegetable acids are: malic acid, in the apple, pear, cherry, &c.; citric acid, in the lemon, lime, orange, gooseberry, cranberry, strawberry, raspberry, &c.; tartaric acid, in the grape, pineapple, &c.

Proteids or Albuminoids are frequently termed flesh-formers. They are composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a small quantity of sulphur, and are extremely complex bodies. Their chief function is to form flesh in the body; but without previously forming it, they may be transformed into fat or merely give rise to heat. They form the essential part of every living cell.