- What is a Chemical?
- Organic Chemicals
- Toxic Chemicals
- Synthetic vs. Natural
Synthetic and natural versions of a chemical are indistinguishable. When an organic chemist synthesizes a chemical originally produced by a living organism (e.g., penicillin, glucose, or estrogen) the definition of success is whether the synthetic chemical is identical in absolutely all respects with the natural compound. I have done this quite a number of times, and the true test of whether one has achieved the synthesis is whether the synthetic and natural version of the chemical are completely identical. If I were to prepare synthetic limonene, which is the principal flavoring chemical in lemons, the synthetic limonene would be indistinguishable in all respects from natural limonene isolated directly from lemons. There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between the synthetic and natural version of a chemical.
Natural chemicals can be toxic. Examples include strychnine, which occurs naturally in the nuts of a tree native to India, palytoxin, a chemical produced by a coral native to Hawaii, or digitalis, which is produced by the common foxglove, grown in many gardens. Strychnine, palytoxin and digitalis are 100% natural, yet are deadly toxins. Natural is not always good.
One surprising aspect of this denigration of synthetic chemicals is that people who make a false distinction in their minds between natural = good/synthetic = bad are likely to get up in the morning and take some ibuprophen or Lipitor or Zoloft. These are synthetic chemicals, yet little thought is given by most to taking a (synthetic) pharmaceutical agent prescribed by a doctor. Synthetic is not always bad. Society would lose an enormous number of benefits without synthetic chemicals.
Molecules containing the element chlorine have a particularly bad reputation as environmental pollutants, and Greenpeace has ludicrously proposed an across-the-board ban on chlorine and chlorinated molecules. Some chlorinated chemicals are persistent in the environment and do show long term effects and toxicity in animals, but not all chlorinated chemicals share these problems. Some chlorine-containing molecules such as tetracycline are life-saving. A number of the most highly prescribed synthetic drugs in the U.S. contain chlorine, drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix) that helps people with heart problems or amlodipine (Norvasc) that helps people with high blood pressure or bupropion (Wellbutrin) that helps people with depression.
- Chlorinated Hydrocarbons
Fear of chemicals is a misplaced phobia. There is little to say about this, given that everything is a chemical. Chemophobia is solely caused by the lack of education some people have on the subject of chemistry.
First of all, we must define the word "process" as it applies to food. Given that the word "process" is defined as "a systematic series of actions directed to some end," then washing, peeling and slicing an apple to make apple pie is a process, and the apple slices have been processed. This is perhaps one end of the spectrum of processing food. At the other end of the spectrum, the extreme end, is pink slime. This disgusting "food" product consists of finely ground beef scraps, fat, and connective tissue, which is mechanically separated from residual fat using a heated centrifuge (i.e., rendered). The residue, so to speak, is further processed by heating and treatment with either ammonia or citric acid to kill all the Salmonella and E. coli that have managed to latch on to "scraps" of meat. (I am unsure how the beef industry defines "scraps," but I am absolutely certain I don't want to know what they are or where they've been to become so contaminated with bacteria.) Finally, the disinfected product is finely ground and pressed into solid blocks for transport and use. The USDA allows ground beef to contain up to 15% of "lean, fine textured beef," as it is known inside the industry, without labeling it as such. I cannot understand why people in the beef industry object to this wonderful product being labeled with such a cute name. I mean, look what Victoria's Secret has done with "Pink." /sarcasm
- Processed Food
Another example of a processed food is sugar (sucrose). It is actually one of the most pure chemicals available to consumers. It is produced by either sugar cane or sugar beet plants, and is 100% natural. Related to this process is molasses, which is what is left over after all the sucrose has been crystallized out of the cane or beet juice. In this sense, molasses is not processed to any significant extent.
The point at which I object to processing is when the result can no longer be called by its original name; when so many artificial and non-natural ingredients have been added that they outnumber the original ingredients. Processed cheese food comes to mind. It certainly isn't cheese, and it is highly questionable whether it should be considered food. However, cheese is actually processed milk and butter is processed cream, although neither process involves adulteration of the product with additives, preservatives, and other ingredients, nor chemicals to alter the consistency, palatability, or shelf-life (except salt). Ground beef is clearly processed beef, however minimally, but I personally prefer to know what sort of beef went into the grinder. Our local butcher grinds the beef right in front of your eyes and it is 100% meat, nothing added. It is the extent of the processing and to what extent the product is adulterated that is really the issue.
I find it objectionable when a word is perverted to mean something other than its
- Words and Their Definitions
Thus, we have the perversion of the word "chemical" as something bad and unnatural, when, in fact, every physical thing is made of chemicals. Our bodies use chemicals like glucose to obtain energy, our bodies metabolize chemicals like cholesterol to obtain other chemicals such as estrogen, we take chemicals to cure infections and to reduce pain, the nerve impulses from your eyes to your brain that are being transmitted as you read this are controlled by chemicals called neurotransmitters, as is the control of the beating of your heart and contraction of your muscles. Everything you eat, absolutely everything, is a chemical.