Friday, June 16, 2006

Doggerel #15: "Natural"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

A lot of alties like to defend their magic cures and suppliments as "natural." Of course, that has no bearing on its safety. Nature's kitchen doubles as a meth lab. Don't get me wrong: Nature produces a lot of wonderful stuff. But that doesn't mean it's safe to stick just anything into your mouth. Nature keeps a lot of nasty stuff under the sink.

Apple seeds and peach pits, for example, contain amygdalin, which can turn into hydrogen cyanide in the human stomach. I recall an anecdote from long ago where some police officers thought some parents were poisoning their kid. After the investigation, they found out the kid had a habit of cracking open and eating peach pits.

Many animals naturally produce toxins as a way of life. Some of these toxins are incredibly powerful. Just think about all the poisonous snakes, spiders, jellyfish, and so forth. It would not surprise me if there's some unnamed invertibrate in some dark corner at the bottom of the ocean capable of producing a toxin so powerful, a single molecule will make your brain boil out your ears. I don't want to know what'll happen if you're allergic.

Hopefully, I've established that natural does not equal benign. Now, onto another angle: Some woos seem to think that natural products are inherently superior to artificial counterparts. In some cases, such as natural vanilla extract versus artificially produced vanilla flavor, it's a matter of opinion. Some people with talented taste buds can tell the difference between them in blind taste tests, but that's probably explainable because the natural extracts contain traces of not-vanilla-flavor impurities.

Nature tends to be messy in her kitchen: Some of the chemicals we find useful are often coupled with nasty ones. Cinchona bark, which contains a chemical useful for treating malaria also contains a lot of other chemicals, like quinidine, a cardiac depressant. Sometimes an herb doesn't contain the active ingredient we're looking for, due to growing conditions. That's why medical science is usually so interested in isolating individual chemicals and then manufacturing them: Herbs and such are chemical cocktails, and medicine often requires precision measurements to get the desired effect. Herbal suppliments, being largely unregulated and filled with inherent unreliability, can vary in their active ingredient so much that a bottle might not even contain what the label says it does. With real medicine, you usually know exactly what you're getting.

One of the more absurd assertions I've encountered online discussed an alleged difference between identical "natural" and "artificial" chemicals: Humans "force" the chemical bonds which sets them at unnatural angles. The last time I checked, human beings hadn't developed a way of altering the laws of quantum mechanics, but that is a topic for a different post.


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Anonymous said...

I realize I am a bit late posting here, but my favorite response to the "Oh, but it is natural" crowd is to point to a tree in my back yard and ask if they want some pefectly natural hemlock tea. Socrates swore by it...

Bronze Dog said...

Nothing wrong with late comments... Though I do get some annoying ones over at the very first post. No shortage of Doggerel inspiration there. I need to see about swiping the html for one of those "latest comments" things.

As for your snippy quote: You live up to the first half of your pseudonym.

Anonymous said...

Ah, good ol' naturalistic fallacy - traditional chinese parents swear by this stuff. It's a nice figure of speech, distinguishing between natural and unnatural, but the metaphor is where it ends.

One minor thing about the bond angles thing is that it's probably a bastardisation of isomerism. By that, I mean that a particular molecule can have different stereochemistries, that is, some chemical bonds are set at an angle in one direction, and others are set in the opposite direction. A sample of a compound with these different stereoisomers will have the exact same molecular mass and melting/boiling points, but will often have vastly different effects on organisms. This is because life on earth relies on enzymes, which only 'fit' one particular stereoisomer. Natural products tend to have a single configuration, while artificial products, if cheaply made, tend to have a whole mishmash of these isomers. Therein lies the effect.

One neat example is the chemical which gives lemons and oranges their distinct scents - they are the exact same molecule, just that they are slightly different isomers of one another. They both react with the enzyme receptors in your nose to give different signals.