There’s a war being waged against chemicals, and I’m keen to determine whether it’s the brainchild of some MNCs Marketing Department or if there’re some teeth to the claims of the all-natural crowd. You might have seen it on one of the products on your bathroom or pantry shelf–a label promising all-natural ingredients with none of those nasty, pesky chemicals that will surely do your body harm. So… what’s the deal?
Why does nature reign supreme?
The all-natural stance is not all that surprising. For one, there’s a sort of romanticism we can attribute it to. Why, humans started off as hunter-gatherers; we’re known to have crushed herbs and leaves to cure our ailments and heal our wounds, and some of us brushed our teeth by chewing on sugarcane. If it served us well enough a few centuries ago, it would likely serve us well now.
This isn’t just a niche belief, however. The tendency of humans to consider something that is natural as good is called the Naturalistic Fallacy. While it’s typically applied in the context of philosophy and ethics, it does fit quite well with the topic at hand. We can spin this fallacy any which way–the crux of the matter is that we believe natural things are better than artificial things. That’s just how we roll.
Then there’s the fact that every movement, I presume, starts off with a kernel of truth–how it branches off after that is wildly unpredictable. Chemicals can be bad: plastics have chemicals, a whole bunch of them. Be it BPA or phthalates, these chemicals have the potential to enter our bodies and wreak havoc on our endocrine systems. But chemicals can be good, great even–don’t boo me, but water is a chemical, and it’s a pretty great tasting one at that. Wait, you might say, water is natural, plastic is not. This is the perfect opportunity for me to be pedantic. Everything’s a bunch of chemicals–heck, your body’s mass is pretty much just composed of that. And so, this war against chemicals is better framed as a war between synthetic chemicals and natural ones–let’s look into that.
Team Natural vs Team Synthetic
Thus far, Team Natural is making a pretty good argument: plastics aren’t all that great while water is pretty darn awesome, and only one of them is bestowed upon us by Mother Nature. But what if we flip it around? One of the most lethal substances known to man is… the botulinum toxin. Its source? Bacteria. That’s as natural as it gets. Apples are pretty innocuous, wouldn’t you say? If you were to chew and swallow a bunch of apple seeds, your digestive system would convert the amygdalin in the seeds into hydrogen cyanide. It’s not enough to do any damage; at most, you get a cool bit of trivia, but it does serve as a great segue.
Moderation–the answer to most of life’s problems
If you can’t trust apples (you can trust apples), what can you trust? The answer to most of life’s problems is apparently: moderation. And the best example of this is the pharmaceutical industry. There are synthetic drugs and there are natural drugs, and you’d find a list of side effects for them both. But that’s okay, for two reasons. One, they’re used only when the benefits outweigh the risks, and two, it’s usually the concentration of something that makes it lethal (remember, cyanide and apples).
This is an approach that will serve us well as we continue to see an increasing number of products in the supermarket proudly proclaiming to be all-natural. Ask yourself if the benefits outweigh the risks and ask yourself whether the concentration of something is truly high enough to do some damage–be it the synthetic parabens in your shampoo or the natural essential oils in your soap, they both have a case against them.
So, who’s the winner?
Corporations know to follow the money, and people (usually) vote with their wallets. As it stands, however, if people come across some all-natural soap, or maybe a jar of all-natural peanut butter, it’s highly likely that they’re willing to pay extra for it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if something is synthetic or natural; what matters is whether it does the job and doesn’t harm you in the process. Marketing doesn’t care about the facts–be it a low-fat yoghurt or a sugary cereal promising that breakfast is the most important meal of the day or a chocolate protein bar with ingredients you can pronounce, they’re all marketed as healthy. The debate is bound to reignite soon enough; with products like synthetic meat just around the corner, it’s worth taking the time to make sure that it’s not just companies who strike gold–we do too.