What is “all natural” and what are “chemicals?”
I am going to discuss what these two terms ought to mean, and what they really mean. Before anyone’s all like “how surprising,” this actually is surprising to a lot of people. I have known about this issue for a very long time, because I was lucky enough to find out when I was a child, and have since grown my understanding, but some people aren’t afforded that luxury. Don’t be sending me or other people hate for bringing this out into the open – it’s about time people stopped being too afraid of looking dumb to ask real questions about science, which means arrogant people have to stop looking down on those individuals who don’t have the same educational background, and create a learning environment.
I am very disillusioned with the ingredients industries (cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical industries) because a long time ago, they created two nonsensical phrases that they can put on more expensive products and get you to buy them, believing you’re doing the right thing for the environment, the animals, and of course, your body. Unfortunately, some very unethical companies have really cashed in on this, and are drowning out the genuine well-intentioned companies with products derived from plants they’ve grown and harvested themselves.
Those companies are real, I will say that from the beginning. I have nothing but love for products made from olive oil, coconut anything, and any of my favourite herbs. Whether they’re “natural” or “chemical free” is neither here nor there.
Since the terms “all natural” and “no chemicals” are effectively undefinable, they are being put on the packaging for all sorts of crap you’d never want to own in a million years, let alone justify the price tag.
Lets start with chemicals.
A few years ago, a governor tried to bring a bill to the Senate in America to ban the use of dihydrogen monoxide. Her list of the dangers of this terrible chemical was huge – it was known to be deadly in small amounts, it was colourless and odourless, meaning you might not be able to detect its presence, it’s chemical basis, hydroxyl radical, had been shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters in humans and all other animals. This chemical is found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds. It’s used in shampoo, conditioner, hair colourant, it can also be found in biological and chemical weapons manufacture and it’s an industrial solvent.
Based on this information, 86% of Americans would support a ban on dihydrogen monoxide. Would you?
I haven’t given you any important information on what dihydrogen monoxide actually is, and when the facts are twisted this way, when a harmless compound is given its chemical nomenclature (the names by which everything in the universe is known to scientists), it sounds more dangerous.
Does this picture give you a clue as to what dihydrogen monoxide actually is?
It’s water. If you were ready to sign a petition to ban water, can you see how easily ingredients companies twist the facts to their advantage to try and get you to avoid common ingredients, so you spend more money on things that don’t contain chemicals?
Everything in the universe is made from chemicals. You know about the Periodic Table, right? That everything that possibly exists is made of atoms, and that these atoms are all elements, which are the things with the symbols on the periodic table. I use the Periodic Table symbols for Platinum (Pt) and Silver (Ag) to make writing “platinum and silver blonde” quicker, by saying “Pt and Ag blonde” instead. That’s all those chemical names are. They’re just a way of calling an ingredient by its exact combination of elements in its molecules so that we can reproduce the same things again and again. Take salt water. It’s totally natural, but it’s chemical name could reasonably be sodium chloride dihydrogen monoxide. Doesn’t that sound horrible? But it’s totally precise (hardcore nomenclaturists are crying right now at my simplification).
This is important because of this: In science, lots of similar molecules are all called “salts” including sodium chloride – sea salt – but also sodium iodide, potassium fluoride, and potassium chloride, to name but a few. Some of them behave very differently to others. In science, it pays to be exact about ingredients names. In fact, labelling law in some countries forbids the manufacturers from calling a lot of things by their normal names, to avoid confusion. For example, did you know that the plant known in England as plantain, hailed as one of the seven miracle herbs of the Celtic world, is not even remotely related to Caribbean plantain, which is a savoury banana. You can buy plantain chips in the Caribbean aisle of the English supermarket, but they’re made of Caribbean plantain, which could be confusing! To make it more confusing, rabbits can eat plantain (from England) but not plantain (from the Caribbean)! This is the exact reason that scientists have given everything in the world a chemical name. Every single thing.
So the only thing anyone could sell that would truly contain “no chemicals” would be a big jar of nothing! And even then, the jar is made of chemicals such as glass, stone or plastic. Manufacturers really cash in on this meaningless term because they can bend it to mean whatever they want it to mean. One minute, “no chemicals” means “nothing with a ‘y’ in it” another it means “no metals” (salt is 50% metal), they pick the meaning, don’t explain it to us customers, and charge us more money for the product because it’s supposed to be healthier.
As customers, we expect “no chemicals” to mean something we can’t quite define – nothing unhealthy or made in a lab, for starters. Something healthier, or that’s more natural. I would like the phrase “no chemicals” to be banned by labelling laws.
Natural is another word that should be banned from all packaging. Everything we have on this planet is natural. People often think scientists go round attaching atoms to each other to make molecules with special properties, the so-called “secret formula” of outdated horror movies.
Scientists like these are as non-existent and unreal as the vampires, werewolves, golems and slime monsters they invent or destroy in those films. I promise you. I’m a fully qualified chemistry teacher and I have worked in a pharmacy, and I have never once seen scientists create nearly-magic stuff from nothing. I repeat, everything we have, everything we’ve made, it’s all come from our natural planet. But that doesn’t mean you’d want to eat it. What you’re expecting from “all natural” products seems obvious – plant derived, herbs, cleansing energy, ancient goodness, things you could make in your kitchen. Unfortunately, that’s not always what products contain when they’re labelled “all natural.”
Often, subversive companies use the “all natural” or “natural ingredients” type labelling to make you think something is more wholesome than it really is. For example, Walkers Sensations were claiming their crisps (potato chips) were “made with natural ingredients.” Let’s break this down and define it by what it isn’t:
Supernatural means anything that occurs which is physically unexplainable.
Unnatural means “not natural.”
Natural means anything that occurs which is physically possible and explainable by the triple discipline of biology-physics-chemistry (aka science) through empirical means (in other words, by testing it).
Therefore everything in the universe that can be explained by physics is natural.
I asked a physicist if crisps were explainable by biology chemistry and physics. He agreed. There may have been investigator bias because I am a chemist asking the question and I already knew the answer, but I don’t think it affected his answer because it’s a simple “natural or supernatural.”
When you look at labelling, this is the definition that is often used.
The other definition, and the one people expect “natural” to mean, is “occurs in nature.” Crisps don’t occur in nature, you don’t just find them lying around. The label did say natural ingredients, so I will point out bottles of vegetable oil (the second ingredient on the back) aren’t just sitting around in the jungle waiting to be picked up, a plant has to be processed to get it. Face creams, soaps, shower gels, miso soups, and tubs of beans don’t occur in nature. They have all been subjected to a process even if that process is simply mixing them together. If we were to say natural means “any ingredient that occurs in nature, that has been processed and combined with other ingredients” then anything in the universe could be classed as natural. The use of the word is completely binary, with no middle ground. Therefore, if a law were to regulate use of the word natural, you wouldn’t be able to put it on any natural products because you wouldn’t find them occuring in nature with “natural” labels on them. The only 100% natural way of life is to become fruitarian. Which as I discuss elsewhere is shockingly unhealthy and lacks amino acids in the quantities needed for brain, muscle and organ function in humans over the long term (but sounds very romantic). So no, that toothpaste isn’t natural, and yes, that orange is natural, and they’re both made of chemicals, because all things in nature are made 100% from chemicals (check out the “Periodic Table of Elements – also called “the periodic table of CHEMICAL elements”) and they’re all completely natural.
Natural and no-chemicals labelling has become a marketing ruse to get you to pay over the odds for a less effective product because then they don’t have to actually spend time and money on Research and Development to make a product that functionally competes with the brand leaders.
The ideals of the original companies that began labelling their products with these words have been subverted by large corporations and smaller swindling start-ups for financial gain, because you can’t prove that anything (even 2-hydroxypropanoic acid*) is not natural.
* 2-hydroxypropanoic acid is also called lactic acid and is made in the human body, it builds up in muscles after exercise causing that familiar stiff feeling.