Posts Tagged ‘chemicals’

The Bad Thing: Unnatural chemicals

Friday, November 6th, 2009

I nominate “chemical” as one of the most misused terms of the decade. I’d also like to nominate its too-frequent companion “natural”, often wrongly used as counterpoint. This sort of abuse of the word “chemicals” is so prevalent that Michael has dubbed it The Bad Thing.

Everything on the periodic table of elements is a chemical. Those elements combine to form other chemicals. Everything you’ve ever experienced is the product of chemicals. You and I are made of chemicals. Even an empty box contains chemicals, primarily nitrogen and oxygen. Without chemicals to eat, drink and breathe, all life on the the planet would die very quickly.

If a product claims not to contain chemicals, it is either lying or comically ignorant. Either way, it’s a practice to avoid condoning through commerce.

When I have this conversation in real life, people often respond with something along the lines of, “Not that kind of chemical, you know, the kind made in a lab”. No, I don’t know. I speculate that the concept of chemicals as unnatural rests on the idea that a thing can be processed to a point where what is good and wholesome in it gets destroyed. It ceases to be natural and becomes chemicals. Although I doubt that this position is backed by sound science, I am curious where the cutoff is.

When I look at a loaf of bread, I don’t see wheat. I don’t really even know how a grass becomes a loaf of bread. Does that mean bread is “unnatural” or does it mean I’m ignorant about how food is processed? How about The Mighty Twinkie, with its alleged 50-year shelf life? Is that unnatural? As far as I can tell, it’s made much the same way as bread: you get some grasses, do some stuff to turn it in to flour, mix the flour with some sugar cane bits and some other stuff, then cook it somehow, and you have a food whose component parts are unrecognizable. I don’t see why one is more natural or chemical than the other. Is it because one involves so many more steps than the other? In that case, is taking a roundabout route unnatural? Phone cards can add many steps to making a phone call, are calls placed with calling cards more chemical than calls that are simply dialed?

I’m honestly curious: if you’ve ever committed The Bad Thing, or stand by The Bad Thing as a reasonable use of language, I’d like to know how H2O is good chemicals whereas the stuff of Twinkies is bad chemicals.