When was the last time you either read on a label or were told by someone that a product contained something “natural”? It seems as though the terms “all natural,” “no artificial X or Y,” and (arguably the worst) “no chemicals” have become all the rage with people concerned about their health and what they eat.
The problem with this idea is that chemicals themselves are completely natural. This is why there is an entire branch of the natural sciences devoted to studying them — it’s called “chemistry”.
In spite of this, the smear campaign against the word “chemical” is so entrenched in society that it has gotten to the point where people actively seek out these products because they genuinely believe that in being more natural or lacking synthetic chemicals, the product is better than everything else.
Chemicals make up everything. From the air we breathe to the water we drink, everything is a chemical.
One clever ruse employing the actual definition of a chemical entails mentioning something like dihydrogen monoxide.
This chemical is actually derived from a highly dangerous and highly reactive hydroxyl radical. This radical has been conclusively proven to alter cell membranes, disrupt neurotransmitters, and even go so far as denaturing proteins (rendering them useless) and mutating DNA, the very fabric of life.
It’s not only the radical that can do this. The components of dihydrogen monoxide itself can be found in things like nitroglycerine (an explosive) and sulfuric acid (a highly caustic acid), among other things.
Sounds quite bad, doesn’t it? Well, the common name for this chemical is actually water. Yep, water. “Di” means two and “mono” means one. Hence: dihydrogen monoxide (H2O).
With every chemical in nature, there’s a caveat. The same that applies to water applies to everything else. It’s true that water and what it’s made of can kill you quite easily. But so can any other naturally occurring chemical.
The one thing that most people don’t understand is that many of the medicines, food additives, and even poisons that they know are made or at least derived from natural sources. The best medicines are usually the latest and greatest plant or fungal extracts. Nature has this odd way of helping things live and also killing mercilessly.
Case in point: foxgloves. This group of plants is extremely poisonous, but a group of chemicals inside of them that were extracted and purified (cardiac glycosides) have been used to treat heart failure and cardiac issues.
Socrates probably wasn’t a big fan of the hemlock variety of plants, since it was used to execute him, yet its chemicals and extracts can be used as a sedative. Much more effective is Oleander, which is so poisonous that even eating honey (organic or not) produced by bees that digested oleander nectar can kill a person. And don’t get me started on arsenic. Talk about all natural!
Just because it was synthesized in a lab doesn’t mean it’s not natural, either. As mentioned before, the extracts from the plant need to be purified. The purification in the lab leads to the creation of the drug or chemical compound necessary. This has been done to get chemicals like aspirin and penicillin out of bark and fungi, respectively.
Great cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals have similar natural beginnings as well. The abridged list includes etoposide (from May Apples), vinblastine and vincristine (from rosy periwinkles), and taxol (from yew leaves). Even pesticides (which are often frowned upon by many) are made from natural chemicals produced by plants to ward off insects.
As soon as we know the chemical in the plant, we can synthesize it ourselves (if it’s easier than extracting). And that’s alright, too. I’ll give you an example. Here’s two chemicals that have the exact same structure … my question is, which one is synthetic and which is natural? C9H8O4 or C9H8O4? Considering the fact that they both look identical at a molecular level, your body doesn’t and can’t know the difference.
“But then why purify it? Keep it natural!” you say. Well, it’s purified because these chemicals occur naturally at such low concentrations that they’re useless. Either that or, unless fixed slightly, they can harm or kill you.
So, next time you hear someone mention the idea of “natural” over anything else, help them understand. They’re just misunderstanding the science.