Is a glue stick technically food?
April 13, 2008 2:34 PM   Subscribe

How many calories are there in a glue stick? This question came up in a discussion with a chef about at what point edible things cease to be food. The chef felt that the substance must contain some kind of nutritional content. Is a glue stick food if it has calories? What about elmer's glue?
posted by ben242 to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Wikipedia claims "Food is any substance, usually composed primarily of carbohydrates, fats, water and/or proteins, that can be eaten or drunk by an animal for nutrition or pleasure."
posted by dmd at 2:40 PM on April 13, 2008

I think that many (if not most) non-food items contain calories and even some nutrients. But that doesn't make them "food." :) I'd say that food not only contains nourishment but is *intended* to do so.
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:40 PM on April 13, 2008

Virtually all organic matter contains calories. Calories are a measure of energy, and the caloric content of a substance is usually determined by burning it over water and measuring the change in water temperature, adjusted for heat loss. So a piece of bark, for instance, or a block of wood, will have a great deal of calories; however, the human gastrointestinal system cannot process these calories as they are locked up in complex fibrous form.

So yes and no. I mean, a glue stick in all likelihood does contain calories - but I don't think that necessarily qualifies it as "food"
posted by Oxydude at 2:47 PM on April 13, 2008

A calorie is just a unit of energy. There's calories in just about everything. Your computer probably has lots. Try burning it -- you'll see. Whether or not those calories can be used by your body is another matter entirely.

And, of course, "non-toxic" does not equal "edible."

With glue, there's a pretty serious risk of bowel obstructions and the like. It's glue.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:50 PM on April 13, 2008

I don't know the amount of calories in a glue stick, but technically the correct way to find out would be to burn a gluestick in a calorimeter.

As Oxydude said, just because something has calories doesn't mean that the body can use the energy contained in the substance as food.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:51 PM on April 13, 2008

The package of gum in my pocket has "this is not a low calorie food" written on it. I doubt that glue would qualify either.
posted by Chessbum at 2:58 PM on April 13, 2008

The problem with defining food as Wikipedia does is that some things that are distinctly NOT food CAN be consumed for pleasure and even have (some) nutritional value. I don't know how many calories a gluestick has (so perhaps this will get deleted) but you and your friend might want to look into a disorder called pica which occasionally affects, among others, pregnant women. (Wiki defines it as "an appetite for largely non-nutritive substances (e.g., coal, soil, feces, chalk, paper, etc.) or an abnormal appetite for some things that may be considered foods, such as food ingredients (e.g., flour, raw potato, starch)".) A friend of mine had it and found herself in her garage eating dry wall when she suddenly realized that perhaps something was amiss.
posted by The Bellman at 3:01 PM on April 13, 2008

Best answer: The Elmer's FAQ links to MSDS sheets for their products, and the glue stick appears to be made out of a mixture of "synthetic polymers." Other parts of the FAQ suggest that these polymers are probably derived from fossil fuels, although the exact ingredients are "proprietary." So, it appears that there are probably no human-digestible calories in a glue stick. I would assume, for the purposes of your argument, non-human-digestible calories presumably don't qualify as "nutritional content."
posted by fermion at 3:05 PM on April 13, 2008

Best answer: A problem with categories in natural language is that they are typically vague, to the point where they do not actually have necessary and sufficient conditions. This is why many psychologists have turned to things like prototype theory (and its descendents) to account for the way humans classify things. These theories are "graded" in the sense that categories are not exactly discrete. We can talk about things being "good examplars" of food, and there will be things that are very clearly food, but the borderline cases will be difficult to determine.

Most traditional definitions in e.g. dictionaries try to impose necessary and sufficient conditions, just as the wikipedia definition dmd posted does. For a category like "food", it will be extremely hard, if not impossible, to find such conditions that a group of people will actually agree to, with respect to the borderline cases. What you (and the chef) are trying to do here is impose a sufficient condition -- if a thing has calories, it is food. People above in the thread have already pointed out that this particular condition won't work. I think it is very likely that having calories, or providing energy, or some experiential correlate of these things will be properties of good examplars of the food category, and if one adopts a prototype theory, the prototypes of food will likely have calories. So it may be close (but not perfect) as a necessary condition. (Things will get a little more complicated if you try to determine just how many calories are needed.)

I think that the answer to the question of whether elmer's glue is food is either "no", or the more nuanced "it is extremely far from being a good exemplar of the category FOOD, but not exactly non-food".

By the way, our mental categorizations might not necessarily line up with legal definitions, which often do try to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for categories that people just don't conceptualize in those terms.
posted by advil at 4:02 PM on April 13, 2008 [9 favorites]

The glue stick might make you sick to your stomach, rendering the caloric content moot. Traditional paper glues are made from flour (library paste) or casein-based (milk protein), but commercial makers add preservatives to make sure that bacteria and fungi won't use the glues as food. The same goes for trendy fruit-based and milk- or nut-based shampoo and bath products, which contain preservatives and detergents.

Soak and eat your leather shoes and belts first, if you are stranded on a desert island, before eating your glues and your shampoos.

This also reminds me of Primo Levi's account of, when he was an enslaved chemist in Auschwitz, trying to synthesize something edible from the laboratory's supplies.
posted by bad grammar at 4:25 PM on April 13, 2008

Response by poster: Some good answers here guys. Many thanks.
posted by ben242 at 4:45 PM on April 13, 2008

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