Le Chatelier 7/14/19

By Richard Bleil

As I write this, I am drinking a Diet Coke (like an idiot since it is 1 AM). A number of years ago, I read an article that claimed that Coke products (specifically) can decalcify bones when consumed in excess as a result of the phosphoric acid used in all of their formulas.

The first thought most people might have is, well, sure, the acid will dissolve bones. Actually, no; the phosphoric acid is part of the buffer system used to be sure that the acidity of the drink is not off. While Coke products (like any soft drink) are acidic, they are not dangerously so. A buffer is a solution that resists changed in pH (acidity and alkalinity) on addition of an acid or a base. This is important, because carbonated beverages rely on carbon dioxide dissolved in the drink at high pressure (hence the pressure release when the cap is removed). Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which will lower the pH of the pop (make it more acidic; the lower the pH, the higher the acidity). When carbon dioxide leaves the solution, the carbonic acid breaks down making the acidity of the solution drop. If it drops too far, it becomes dangerously alkaline, so the phosphoric acid buffer helps to prevent it from becoming dangerous. (This is also why so much sugar is common in pop. Acids, like carbonic acid have a bitter taste, kind of like seltzer water, so pop companies add a lot of sugar to counter this bitter flavor. When the carbonic acid leaves, the solution becomes less acidic, and this bitter flavor leaves, but the sugar remains. This is why flat pop tastes so sweet.)

The beauty of being a chemist is that it gives you the tools to understand the world even if you might not have thought of it yourself. I never would have thought about the effect of phosphate on bones, but when I read this article, two things became immediately clear. First, it’s not the acidity, and second…it’s Le Chatelier.

Le Chatelier is a marvelous principle that simply states that if you apply a stress to a system, the system will respond so as to alleviate that stress. Okay, here’s what that means, Coke products add phosphate to your body (the system), so your body will respond to reduce these excess phosphates. It can do this with the calcium in your bones.

Were you to undergo the violence of birth today, it would kill you. Yet, newborns do it every day. One reason is because the bones lack calcium and are still pliable. There are actually two forms of calcium in the body; one form has three phosphates and is water-soluble, the other has two and does not dissolve in water. Calcium in the infant will lose one of the phosphates, and crystallize in the bones causing them to harden.

One way the body can absorb excess phosphate is by reversing this process. The less phophorylated calcium (and less water soluble) will absorb phosphate, reducing the phosphate but in the process forming the water solutble form of calcium and then dissolving. And there is it, the bones begin the decalcification process.

As a chemist, I’ve always been fond of Le Chatelier’s principle, and not just because it’s so much fun to say in class. In my head; I’m saying it now: Le Chatelier! The other reason is that it helps to explain so many phenomena in chemistry, but, surprisingly, it also helps to explain things outside of the field as well.

Consider the previous presidential election. The political climate was creating stress on what is now recognized as the president’s “base” causing them to feel like they have to censor themselves which, in my personal opinion, indicates that our society was moving in the right direction. The president exploited this stress, and walked into the White House with it.

President Obama applied stress to Iran in creating a deal to stop nuclear proliferation. This deal applied stress to Iran (yes, positive stress is stress), and they responded by stopping production of weapon’s grade nuclear fuel. The current administration removed this stress by negating the treaty, and in response, Iran has announced that it will begin purifying uranium once again.

In yesterday’s post, I pointed out a statistical trick that the government may be using to basically avoid showing the problem of income inequity in our nation. This inequity is a stress to our society, and the system. As young people are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to live on starting wages, and burdened with tremendous educational debt. As this difference increases, eventually, according to Le Chatelier, the system will respond to alleviate the stress. This shift has already begun.

In the previous election, the Democratic party had a strong showing with very liberal candidates. People are feeling the stress, and putting representatives into office that are discussing restoring taxation for the ultra wealthy, and dealing with the soaring cost of higher education. Let’s hope the political solution will alleviate the stress before things get out of hand.

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