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£1,000,000 prize for 100% chemical free material

Posted by softestpawn on November 26, 2008

We’re all quite familiar with the common-use of ‘chemical’; it means ‘artificial’ and possibly ‘dangerous’ or ‘poisonous’.

If a food has no chemicals in it, it means we won’t get any nasty long term effects from the gunk that people put into processed food to make it last longer or taste ‘better’; our food is natural and our bodies know how to cope with natural food.

We know that a chemical spillage needs to be carefully cleaned up. Chemicals in our water supply are bad. Chemicals on our skin is bad. Chemicals in the air are bad.

Except that natural food is often considerably worse for you than processed food.

Look! Artificial Food!

Any ‘natural’ thing that turns up on the end of your fork has generally been quite severely processed in order to make it better for you – if only to heat it to break down some of its natural chemicals into new ones to make it easier to digest, but perhaps also to kill off the many natural parasites that live in our natural food.

You might artificially combine ingredients together so that the chemicals in them contaminate each other – such as in a stew or a lasagna or a soup. You might artificially mix ingredients together to make new very artificial substances, such as bread or cake sponge.

Even so we could continue using ‘chemical’ to mean ‘artificial’; but this rather misses a fundamental point about the word ‘chemical’ and what we know about chemicals. And that is:

All everyday stuff is made of chemicals, and there is no difference between a chemical made artifically or naturally.

None.

Preparing food, for example, might be done by you in the kitchen, or a chef in his kitchen, or on a production line in a factory. As long as the same ingredients go in, and the same recipe is followed, there is no difference between the food prepared by you, the chef, and the factory. The key differences are the skill in selecting and combining those ingredients and in selecting the recipe.

Feasible Amount of Cream

You may worry about what the factory has put in – but it’s alright, those ingredients are generally listed on the packet. Worry more about what the chef has put in to make the sauces so good (an unfeasibly large amount of cream), or what you’ve introduced in your kitchen by not washing your hands properly.

Most of the ingredients even for your most ‘natural’ kitchens have been artificially extracted from a natural source impossible for us to digest, such as flour from grass seeds. The sodium chloride in your food, or the potassium oxide in the compost for your garden carrots, can be made in a factory from other chemicals, extracted from a plant (which is done in a factory, from other chemicals: the plant), or found naturally lying around and gathered up, but these processes if they’re managed properly all give you the same thing.

Plus impurities.

If you’ve got a nice clean factory and are making chemicals from other more simple chemicals, it’s fairly straightforward to monitor impurities. If you’re digging it out of the ground amongst other stuff, then impurities and quantities are harder to measure and keep consistent as nature tends to be pretty inconsistent. If you’re making it from other ‘natural’ ingredients such as plants, you’ve got a load of other very complicated chemicals involved that need to be filtered.

Hijacking a word that basically means ‘stuff’ (any stuff) to mean ‘poison’, means dubious characters can misuse it to sell us other stuff.

To say “nitrates are chemicals” is true, as “chemicals are stuff”, and no one will argue with that. But if these dubious characters sling mud at the word ‘chemical’ then implicitly nitrates get covered in mud too (which you can expect, they’re an important plant fertilizer – natural and artificial).

This has already happened somewhat; no-one’s going to argue about ‘nitrates are chemicals’. But ‘water is a chemical’ sounds a bit pedantic, and ‘bread is chemicals’ sounds just wrong; we know what bread is, we know what it feels like, we know it’s soft and squidgy and tasty, it can’t be ‘chemicals’.

Well it is. Everything that matters* is. Misapplying labels makes it harder for us all to identify what is what, and to work out what really is bad for us.

And so we have this offer from the Royal Society of Chemicals. Er, Chemistry. If anyone tells you their product is ‘100% chemical free’ you can refer them to that site and ask them why they aren’t rich.

*ha ha ha. etc.

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