What’s In It?

Every morning, I get up bright and early, stumble downstairs, and brew myself a fresh pot of coffee.  I then liberally coat the bottom of a coffee cup with powdery Coffeemate, so when I pour the coffee it automatically mixes with the Coffeemate and produces a hot, steaming concoction of caramel-colored goodness.  It tastes pretty good, too.

img_6278Coffee with Coffeemate in the morning is a matter of standard routine.  But today I thought — what’s in this powdery stuff, exactly?

The answer is written on the side of the container.  There’s corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil (which, according to the label, might include “coconut and/or palm kernel and/or soybean,” just to keep you guessing), sodium caseinate (which the label helpfully discloses is a “milk derivative”), dipotassium phosphate (but fortunately, the label points out, “less than 2%” of that stuff), mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate, artificial flavor, and “annatto color.”

Hmmmm . . . “sodium aluminosilicate”?  I suppose I at least should be happy that there is a “milk derivative,” and “corn syrup” and “vegetable oil” in there among the chemical compounds that Walter White probably lectured on in his high school chemistry class.

Is there value in these kinds of product labels?  I think so, especially if you’ve got allergies to certain foodstuffs and want to find out whether a particular product might provoke a reaction.  But labels that list a bunch of chemical compounds — a group which includes virtually every label these days — aren’t especially illuminating.  I’m not going to research “dipotassium phosphate.”  Instead, people tend to make judgments based on products they know.  Mom had Coffeemate, in both its liquid and powdery forms, around the house in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and I doubt that the formula has changed much over the years, so it seems like a safe option to me.

And that dipotassium phosphate and sodium aluminosilicate really hits the spot!



Kish and I try to be environmentally sensitive people.  We recycle religiously, we walk rather than drive if possible, and we generally try to do whatever we can to reduce our carbon footprint.  That includes buying products that purport to be protective of the environment.

Sometimes, though, the environmentally sensitive products have . . . issues.

IMG_6422Recently Kish picked up compressed hardwood firewood for our outdoor fire pit.  The product looks like a kind of blond, fibrous brick, so it’s not exactly as attractive as old-fashioned logs.  It’s considered “environmentally responsible” because it’s made from leftover wood, so it is a recycled product of a sort, there are no additives, and it purports to burn hotter and produce less smoke, ash, and creosote.   We’ve found that it’s perfectly serviceable in the burning department, although it lacks that natural wood snap and crackle.

So, what’s the problem?  The packaging for these wooden blocks says they should be stored in a dry place — which is perhaps the greatest commercial understatement since the Coca-Cola Company admitted that New Coke was off to a rocky start.  What the package should say, in huge letters, is:  UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU STORE THIS PRODUCT OUTSIDE OR EVER LET IT GET WET!!!  Because, as we discovered to our chagrin, if you do expose the product to moisture, the “compression” element of the product goes poof, and you end up with split shrink-wrap packages from which mounds of sawdust, wood chips, and tiny splinters have erupted and spilled everywhere.  And good luck cleaning up the dust and miniature toothpicks that somehow immediately find their way into every nook and cranny!

I guess it’s a small price to pay for less creosote.

Chemistry Behind The Bar

It turns out there was a practical reason to pay attention during your boring high school chemistry class — it might have made you a better bartender.

IMG_3504Scientists are beginning to pay more attention to the chemistry of alcoholic beverages.  They note that mixing cocktails is a very elementary form of chemistry.  The bartender experiments with different combinations of chemical substances, looking to find just the right mixture of taste, appearance, and alcoholic punch.  Every mixologist understands that, of course — but it turns out that the chemistry of booze is even more interesting than that.  Most alcoholic beverages sold in America don’t have labels that identify precisely what goes into the liquor and whether, for example, the ingredients are natural or artificial.  That’s because, in the U.S., alcohol is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and not the Food and Drug Administration, and the main focus of the labels is the alcoholic content.

There’s some logic to that, I suppose.  If you really like a flavored vodka, for example, will it make a difference to you if the flavor is artificial and the grain that is fermented to create the drink was raised through liberal use of pesticides?  Most people don’t drink to promote their health, they drink because it relaxes them and they have more fun when they’re loosened up.  The precise nature of the substances that get them to where they want to go without barfing onto their shoes really aren’t that crucial.

Anyone who’s worked mixing drinks knows that, to be a really exceptional bartender, you need to be a bit of a psychologist, relationship counselor, priest, character judge, and comedian, among other attributes.  Now we need to add chemist to the list, too.