What’s in it for Me?

     In a memorable episode of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show Harris welcomed pal Frank Remley (played by Elliott Lewis) into the kitchen where earlier that day Phil’s daughters had been experimenting with their new chemistry set. After Frank drank from a bottle on the table, he commented cheerfully, “Hey, this is wonderful wine. Good vintage. Nice body. Very dry. What do you call this stuff?” Phil’s reply of “Ink!” caused predictable expectoration from Remley and laughter from the audience.

     For most of my life I have regarded ink in the same light as Remley: fine on paper, awful on the palate. But recently as I looked closely at the list of ingredients on both prescription and over-the-counter medications in the house I noticed that “edible ink” is one of headliners. Now that I have examined a number of labels, I am beginning to wonder how much of what has gone into those bottles should be going into our bodies.

     Look at that container of ibuprofen. Corn starch we can stomach. But what about colloidal silicon dioxide, croscarmellose sodium, hypromellose, iron oxides, microcrystalline, stearic acid, and titanium dioxide? If these ingredients are inactive, why do they sound like something bubbling over in Doctor Jekyll’s laboratory?

     In addition to edible ink, that stool softener capsule mixes in D&C #33, FD&C Red #40, FD&C Yellow #6, gelatin, glycerin, polyethylene glycol, propylene glycol, sorbitol special, and titanium dioxide. Then comes the puzzler: “May also contain FD&C Blue #1, methylparaben, propylparaben, and purified water.” May also contain? Are these optional tidbits thrown in on alternate weeks? On Blue Mondays does #6 turn yellow? Can two parts propylparaben be substituted for one glycol of polyethylene? Is purified water named last because anything sounding that healthful is used as an afterthought?

     Those needing relief from the opposite end of the BM cycle will likely reach for a tablet containing colloidal silicon dioxide, calcium phosphate, D&C Yellow #10 aluminum lake, FD&C Blue #1 aluminum lake, magnesium stearate, and microcrystalline cellulose. Anyone suffering from diarrhea will undoubtedly be comforted in a sitting position, picturing the #10 yellow rays of the setting sun glinting off the microcrystalline sheet of Aluminum Lake.  

     I am certain representatives from the pharmaceutical companies will assure consumers that the multitude of inactive ingredients make the medicine go down even better than the tuneful spoonful of sugar. But is it necessary to load capsules with mixtures that resemble petroleum byproducts and alchemist rejects? Is it better to swallow a bitter pill that has a known benefit than an appetizing morsel layered primarily with dubious ingredients that do us no good whatsoever? 

     The date when Remley tested ink is simple to verify: November 14, 1948. The time when ink in pens will be edible like the ink currently in drugs is not so easy to predict as I write these words in 2011, but I can state this unequivocally: When it happens, I will have that date on the tip of my tongue.   


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