Naturally, I love chemicals!

This is a continuation on my previous post, “Attention, grocery shoppers!”

So the other night my daughter was complaining of her ingrown toenail that’s been bothering her for the past month.

“Why don’t you soak your foot in Epsom Salts?” I suggested.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“See that blue milk carton atop the fridge?” (That’s where we keep our first-aid/pharmacopeia.)  “It’s magnesium sulfate*.  Bath salts. It’ll help draw out the inflammation and such.”

“Salt?!” She winced

“Mineral salt, not sodium chloride table salt,” I added, while refraining from explaining about ionic bonds.  Her hubby the medic prepared her a foot soak and explained that magnesium sulfate is a natural mineral salt that’s mined and used for all sorts of things.

While she soothed her cold, sore feet in warm water, I had a mental chuckle over “natural chemical”.  To many people, the two words are antonyms — and very distant opposites at that.  As I’ve said before, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.  Minerals are chemicals.  So are sugar, water, caffeine, theobromine (mn chocolate), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), all the ingredients in your can of soda, and so on.

Natural means that something is found in nature, with or without some processing.  Apple juice and olive oil are natural because they squeeze the bejeezus out of those fruits.  (Botanically, fruits are the parts of the plants with the seeds inside; olives and tomatoes are vegetables insofar as cookery and taxation are concerned.)  Vanilla extract is a natural flavor because vanilla beans are used.  Other natural flavors use plant and animal products.

Artificial, which is what many people really mean by the word “chemical”, means a substance produced synthetically.  In my organic chemistry lab, we made (minute) quantities of isopentyl acetate, which most of us are familiar with as artificial banana flavor used in candies or instant puddings. Imitation banana flavor is obviously pretty fake!  But imitation wintergreen is not so readily identifiable, nor is it dissimilar from naturally-distilled wintergreen essence, aside from the fact that the natural distillation will have additional “impurities” that add more depth to the flavor.

The divisions between natural and artificial are fairly straight-forward.  But the definitions of “organic” aren’t!  That’s because we have different meanings for the word organic in different contexts.

Once Upon A Time, O Best Beloved, there was just chemistry, that field of natural philosophy that the scientific method dragged out of the abyss of alchemy.  Organic materials were those which came from natural sources, and were deemed special and beyond the production of the laboratory; they were somehow still deemed to have a “vital force”.  However, in the early 19th century, urea (yes, the stuff of urine) was artificially synthesized, thus dispelling that last thread of medievalism.

Nowadays, organic chemistry occupies itself with materials composed of hydrocarbons, that is, molecules with both Carbon and Hydrogen atoms.  So instead of natural materials, there are a lot of well, unnatural materials involved, such as plastics, drugs, fertilizers, house paints … ordinary everyday stuff, most of which we wouldn’t want to live without.

In addition to the chemistry definition of organic, we have a couple of other usages.  When I’m teaching about composting, we use the term organic in its original sense of “from something living”.  If it used to be alive, you can compost it and create lovely humus (although fatty things will smell, so we leave meats & dairy items out).

Organic gardening and farming is yet another story.  Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used, and transgenic plants are most always frowned upon as well.  (I have mixed feelings about transgenics; not about the processes, which are simply more specific means of breeding, but about other economic and agro-ecological issues.)

Unfortunately, the history of organic growing is fraught with heavy doses of woo, including planting by moon-signs, astrology, companion planting, and whatnot.  Fortunately, the professional realm has abandoned these, because professional growers have a lot of energy, money, time and effort invested (and of course, documentation work, because nothing officially exists without documentation).  They can’t afford to waste time on nonsense.  Unfortunately for the gardening end, lots of this woo still propagates through the vacuum of teh interwebs.

Last on my list of definitions is the oft-misapplied sense that anything “natural” or “organic” must therefore be safe.  This is bullshit.  There are lots of natural poisons!

Conversely, artificial does not automatically mean dangerous. For example we’ve been using synthetic acetylsalicylic acid (commonly known as aspirin) for decades, instead of the salicylic acid derived from willow bark that was painful to swallow and digest.  The name salicylic acid comes from the genus Salix, in reference to the willow. (Interestingly, wintergreen flavoring can be made from … aspirin!)

There are many organic materials that can be derived both naturally or artificially, and the molecules have no magical memory about where they came from previously.  A nitrate is a nitrate is a plant fertilizer, and a pan’s a pan for all that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to nom on some banana Laffy Taffy.

* Technically magnesium sulfate heptahydrate, for chemists and those who actually care — you know who you are.