In today’s world, we are bombarded with the advertisement for natural and organic products. The typical message is “man-made is bad while natural is good.” The popularity of this belief is growing rapidly and requires some clarifications. Let’s explore this topic and see what science tells us.
Natural vs. Synthetic Nutrients
Natural nutrients or chemicals are obtained from whole food sources in the diet. They are produced by nature without any human intervention. On the other hand, synthetic nutrients or chemicals are artificially made in a laboratory setting or industrial process. Their chemical structures may or may not be found in nature. Please note that in the food industry, the word artificial is used instead of synthetic.
Organic and Natural — Are They the Same Thing?
The short answer is no. Organic and natural mean two different things, and they are not interchangeable terms. In general, “natural” on a label means no artificial components (colors, flavors, and preservatives). Natural does not refer to the method used to produce the ingredients. On the other hand, organic refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, grains, and dairy products.
Lab-Made Does Not Equal Unsafe
Potentially, we could make water in a lab. If you combine hydrogen and oxygen, you’d have synthetic water. Potentially. To make this reaction, you’d need tons of energy, though, and we still haven’t found an efficient and safe way to manufacture water. That’s, of course, an extreme example. But it is an example that highlights how you would have the same substance made of the same molecules.
Another extreme but effective example is that of babies conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF). The concept of lab-made = bad, man-made = good is not only about food. In the 1980s, when the technique started to become widespread, the term “test-tube babies” had a negative stigma attached to it. It wasn’t seen as natural. For food, a similar pejorative term is “Frankenfoods,” commonly used to refer to genetically modified food.
Going back to water. Scientists don’t make water in the lab, ok. But they can make other substances, vitamin C for example. And that would be exactly the same vitamin C found in oranges, with the same chemical structure.
Misconception #1: Synthetic Chemicals Are More Toxic Than Natural Chemicals
This myth is easily debunked. The two most toxic compounds for humans are the botulinum toxin and tetanospasmin. These are the neurotoxins produced by the bacteria that cause botulism and tetanus. These are more than a million times more toxic than any other synthetic chemical made by men.
This point is highlighted by a research study that compared natural and synthetic chemicals in the human diet and found that “Among the agents identified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research in Cancer, 62% occur naturally: 16 are natural chemicals, 11 are mixtures of natural chemicals, and 10 are infectious agents. Thus, the idea that a chemical is “safe” because it is natural is not correct.”1
Misconception #2: Organic Food Is Better for the Environment
There is a big debate over organic versus conventional farming. Recently, the conversation about organic farming has shifted from its lack of chemicals to its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. In December 2018, a study published in Nature found that organic peas farmed in Sweden have a bigger climate impact (50 percent higher emissions) as compared to peas that were grown conventionally in the country.2
Organic farming has many advantages, but it does not solve all the environmental problems associated with food production. The big downside of organic farming is that extra land is being used to grow organic crops. And if we use more land for food, we have less land for carbon sequestration. Another recent paper published in Nature Communications concluded that a widespread adoption of organic farming in England and Wales would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the agricultural yield being 40% lower. On the other hand, the researchers also concluded that if the two countries did not solely rely on organic farming and only used it on a smaller scale, it could result in a 20% reduction of carbon emissions.3
Misconception #3: Synthetic Copies of Natural Chemicals Are Not As Good for You
As we’ve seen with the water and vitamin C example before, a synthesized compound’s chemical structure is exactly the same as the natural compound it is supposed to supplement. It will taste the same, smell the same, and function the same in your body. A few years ago, studies found that synthetic vitamin E is less effective than natural vitamin E because it is absorbed differently by the organism. This, however, does not mean that vitamin E supplements are unsafe. It only means they are less potent.4
Sometimes, resorting to synthetic supplements might actually be the safest choice. A good example of this is melatonin, commonly used as a natural “sleep aid pill.” Naturally derived melatonin comes from the pineal glands of animals. Therefore, it could be contaminated with viral material (think about the mad cow diseases), and it is not recommended. Synthetic melatonin is molecularly exactly the same and is much safer to take.5
The Dose Makes the Poison
Would you believe that apples and potatoes can all be deadly to humans? Apples’ seeds contain amygdalin, and potatoes contain solanine. Ingestion of high doses of these two substances is poisonous. However, the amount contained in apples and potatoes is way far below the harmful dose. It’s the same concept as a drug. You should only take the recommended dose. There is a safe dose for each chemical, natural or synthetic.
Going back to the botulinum toxin, one of the strongest neurotoxins ever. Botulinum toxin is what Botox is made of. It is used to relax the muscles of the face and smooth out lines and wrinkles. If used in the tiny doses given in injections, it does not have any harmful effects and has been used safely for a number of years.6 The dose really makes the poison.
To Sum Up
The debate around natural versus synthetic food falls very much in a gray region. Each chemical, or class of chemicals, should be considered on a case-by-case basis. And the truth often lies in the dose. Most people are still biased in thinking that synthetic is by default worse than natural. What is clear, though, is that consumers should be able to access reliable and referenced information to make their choices.
1 National Research Council (US) Committee on Comparative Toxicity of Naturally Occurring Carcinogens (1996). Carcinogens and anticarcinogens in the human diet: A comparison of naturally occurring and synthetic substances. National Academies Press.
3 Smith, L. G., Kirk, G. J. D., Jones, P. J., & Williams, A. G. (2019). The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods. Nature Communications, 10, 4641.
4 Chopra, R. K., Bhagavan, H. N. (1999). Relative bioavailabilities of natural and synthetic vitamin E formulations containing mixed tocopherols in human subjects. International Journal for Vitamines and Nutrition Research, 69(2), 92–5.