“There is no natural-chemical divide: natural is chemical.
– Neil Savage, Scientific American Custom Media, 2017
Every once in a while something, a magazine article, a journal publication, even a book, … never just a tweet, comes along that reaffirms what you have said for decades. Doesn’t it feel great when that happens? Don’t you just want to blast it out to all those who humored you or even rolled their eyes at you in the past, especially your children? Well, I just read such an article (1), and I am writing a blog about it.
Health gurus and life coaches have been tooting the “natural is better” horn so well that we might easily forget that “natural salt” is sodium chloride, a chemical. Sea salt is sodium chloride plus a whole bunch of other naturally occurring chemicals. If we use iodized salt we are using sodium chloride that has iodine, another chemical, added to it to prevent goiter. The point is that all these chemicals are “natural”.
What could be more natural than drinking a glass of water (spring water, of course, from a bottle you bought) with a lemon slice in it? That lemon peel has no less than 51 chemicals in it: 28 hydrocarbons, 8 aldehydes, 10 alcohols, 3 esters, 1 ketone, and 1 oxide (look those up yourself on Wikipedia if you can’t remember high school chemistry). A full list of all the chemicals in the whole slice is too long to include in this short blog, and they are all natural. I suspect that if all the chemicals in a lemon were listed on its label or included in its advertisements, the lemon would soon lose its luster as being natural, and yet, of course, it still would be.
“Organic” seems to be equated now-a-days with “natural”. Let me reassure you as an almost-a-college-organic-chemistry-major that there are tons of organic chemicals in our lives. Fragrances all contain natural or “essential” oils which are organic chemicals. The European Union Cosmetic Regulations list 26 fragrance chemicals as skin allergens, all “natural” ingredients. Even tea tree oil, the darling “natural” cleanser of gym and Pilates studio equipment everywhere, can cause skin redness and irritation in 2% of people.
According to Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, cancer epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one of the reasons we prefer the word “natural” to “chemical” is that we do a poor job of identifying relative risks. (2)
“Threats that are invisible and not under our control tend to elicit a strong reaction from the public.
[Such as PCBs present in our water in a few parts per million] Other exposures like cigarette smoking,
weight gain, or excessive alcohol consumption do not ellicit anywhere near the same reaction, because
we think that they are under our control, are widespread, and familiar they have been
‘domesticated’, so to speak.”
People also confuse association with causation. Even when science disproves a cause after years of research, the public fear of the association link persists. (Example, measles vaccine and autism)
Too much of anything, even something “natural” like water, can be harmful, even lethal. Everyone is familiar with the mantra, “Drink More Water, It’s Healthy For You”. But you can drink too much. It won’t be the suburban housewife who takes a water bottle with her when she drives to the post office. You have to work hard at it. Like the marathoner hoping to maintain his strength by drinking as much as he/she can during the race who ends up diluting their blood level of sodium (hyponatremia), and finishes confused, if not collapsed at the end of the race. That is called “water intoxication” and is a form of water poisoning.
“How much water can you drink without peeing” contests have resulted in at least one well-publicized death from water intoxication. Andy Warhol’s family brought suit alleging that his unexpected death in the hospital after routine gall bladder surgery was due to water intoxication caused by too much intravenous fluid. He was admitted to the hospital weighing 128 pounds and died just a few days later weighing 156 pounds.
“The world is an ongoing chemical experiment, and natural doesn’t always mean safe.”
So if it is “natural” or “chemical”, it doesn’t make a difference. The dose is important.
Too much natural water can kill you, and a little bit of natural occurring cyanide in a peach pit or a little arsenic in your rice has little significant effect.
“Concentrate on the concentration”.
I will still ask for that chemical-heavy lemon peel twist in my martini.
1. “Chemistry is Everywhere”, pg. 13-15, Scientific American Custom Media, 2017, Neil Savage
2. “Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks”, G. Kabat
Once we get over the offense of using “organic” and “natural” to refer to traditional food production (and it is manipulative language to be sure) can we dismiss the divide between pre- and post-GMO foods, or between candy made with fruit and candy made with lab-made copies of flavor molecules that are a carbon copy of the originals? Is it fine to eat foods with hormones in them because those hormones are found in human bodies anyway? Is milk with antibiotics OK since the antibiotics are safe? Isn’t there a reason to be cautious about new food technologies?