Natural vs. Synthetic Foods: What’s Really Safe?

Natural vs. Synthetic Foods: What’s Really Safe?

This is part of the What We Should Really Be Eating Series. Today’s topic is natural vs. synthetic substances. Find all the posts from this series here.

A few weeks ago my husband and I were grocery shopping. Checking product labels, we were immediately disregarding everything that had the word “artificial” in it. We also put back on the shelf any products that contained synthetic substances.

As a consumer I had never done any research to educate myself about synthetic substances.

However, I thought, you can’t go wrong by choosing “natural,” can you? It just seems safer to choose natural over synthetic or artificial.

I’d normally keep choosing natural and keep not doing any homework to back this choice. However, the recent events I described in the introductory post for the “what we should really be eating” series, prompted me into action.

I’m no longer going to tolerate making uninformed food choices: because I think, or someone told me, or I read something, etc. I’ll pull my sleeves up and start researching.

Natural vs. Synthetic

This is my first assignment. What is better, natural or synthetic? Or none of the two?

So I started digging in.

First – what is natural, and what is synthetic?

Here’s what wikipedia gives for synthetic substance (please keep in mind in the food industry the word artificial is used instead of synthetic):

A synthetic substance or synthetic compound refers to a substance that is man-made by synthesis, rather than being produced by nature.

In other words, if human intervention is required, then the substance is considered synthetic. If it’s found in nature, then it’s natural.

So far so good.

Are all synthetic substances not found in nature? The case of synthetic water.

I used to think that artificial substances don’t exist in nature, and they are human inventions (like plastic materials for example). That could not be further from the truth.

We can make water in a lab. That would make it synthetic. Just combining hydrogen with oxygen molecules. We’d really get synthetic water!

Only it would be exactly the same as water found in nature. Same molecules = same substance.

Just like a baby conceived with IVF is the same as a baby conceived “naturally,” water created in a lab is the same as water found in nature.

You wouldn’t say to a baby conceived through In Vitro Fertilization that it’s less of a baby, would you? You probably wouldn’t. But did you know that at the beginning IVF babies had a stigma attached to them?

Guardian reports that gynecologist Dr Thomas Mathews said about the 1980s:

“The term test-tube baby had a stigma attached to it and it wasn’t seen as natural”

Apparently the “not found in nature” thing is not just about food. But the IVF examples serves us in getting the bigger picture of the “non-natural=bad/worse than natural” issue. Now back to water.

Why would we make water in a lab?

Well, we wouldn’t really make water in a lab. But we would make other substances. We could make vitamin C. And it’d be exactly the same as the vitamin C found in oranges.

Synthetic substances have advantages:

  • They can be purer than the ones found in nature. For example, Melatonin is a sleep hormone and antioxidant. It’s produced in the brain of animals (and your brain as well). Natural melatonin sometimes comes together with viruses. You wouldn’t want to use “natural” melatonin. The one produced in the lab though is safe. No viruses there!
  • They may be cheaper or faster to produce. There are some hard-to-find chemicals. Or some natural chemicals that require a lot of purification in the lab (and this extra work comes with costs). Depending on the chemical it may be more cost-effective to make it in a lab, than to get out in nature in search for it. This is a very common case with vitamins. Many of the vitamins you see on the shelves are actually “synthetic” vitamins.

I don’t want to ingest unsafe substances just because they are “natural.” Similarly, I don’t want our brainpower and time be wasted on producing products with “natural” substances when we can get them out faster and cheaper through synthetic ones. I’d prefer that extra time and money going into research (let’s find that cancer cure!) or other worthwhile uses of our resources.

I now start feeling so good about synthetic chemicals!

But synthetic chemicals may also be similar but not exactly the same as the real thing.

Years ago I watched the news as they announced that Vitamin E found in nature is better than the synthetic one sold as a supplement.

Apparently this is a debated topic, but it seems that synthetic Vitamin E is less effective than natural Vitamin E. That doesn’t mean that synthetic Vitamin E is bad for us – it’s just that it’s not as potent.

Anyway, back then when I first heard about it, I assumed that that was the case for all synthetic substances. They cannot be as good as the real thing, right?

Not really. Again – is synthetic water worse water than natural water? Is an IVF baby less of a “naturally conceived” baby?

But aren’t synthetic and artificial substances toxic?

Some substances are toxic, some are not. Just like some natural substances are toxic, while others aren’t. Let’s dive in.

natural vs. synthetic
Great illustration produced by Sense About Science

In this graph you can clearly see that even apples and potatoes have toxic substances! Who knew? I certainly didn’t, until I started diving into the subject.

So if potatoes and apples and aspirin have toxic substances, shouldn’t we stop consuming them?

Well, it depends on the dose. Apparently apples and potatoes contain only a small dose, and hence are harmless. Now if you were to overdose with amygdalin and solanine, the results would not be pretty. Wikipedia says amygdalin (found in apples) does not just cause poisoning, it can also cause death.

And here’s what Wikipedia says about Solanine (found in potatoes):

Solanine poisoning is primarily displayed by gastrointestinal and neurological disorders. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, burning of the throat, cardiac dysrhythmia, nightmare, headache and dizziness. In more severe cases, hallucinations, loss of sensation, paralysis, fever, jaundice, dilated pupils, hypothermia and death have been reported.

Ingestion of solanine in moderate amounts can cause death. One study suggests that doses of 2 to 5 mg per kilogram of body weight can cause toxic symptoms, and doses of 3 to 6 mg per kilogram of body weight can be fatal.

Symptoms usually occur 8 to 12 hours after ingestion, but may occur as rapidly as 30 minutes after eating high-solanine foods.

Even though both apples and potatoes contain toxic substances, I have no intention of stopping to eat them. Why?

It’s all about the dose

natural vs. synthetic toxicity
Another great graph from Sense About Science

Whoa, it’s not just apples and potatoes! It’s also pears and courgettes! Oh no, they’re all toxic!

No they are not. At that dose we won’t get poisoned by eating fruits and vegetables!

And that’s also true for synthetic substances approved by the government. That’s also why when you take medicine you should only take the suggested dose, and not mindlessly pop pills. There’s a safe dose for each chemical.

Does this mean that all synthetic chemicals at the right dose are good for you?

I don’t know if all synthetic chemicals are good, just like I don’t know if all natural chemicals are good.

What I do know is that if the dose is right, and the chemicals are approved, then they are not toxic. In other words, they are safe to consume.

For example, eating vegetables might be “better” than eating cheese (totally making this up.) That doesn’t mean that eating cheese is toxic. But it might mean you should eat more veggies than cheese.

Does this mean that we should eat anything, natural or not, with no second thoughts?

This article only covers natural vs. synthetic substances. There’s a lot more to food. Like is organic better than non-organic? This question is out of scope.

Also I’d never advocate against doing your own research. Please do. As I said in my introductory post, I consider being informed a duty. Informed consumers will be pushing companies for better products, so by all means, do ahead and study.

But what about man-made substances that are invented in the lab?

I’d start by saying it’s all about the dose. Also, I’d hate to answer this question in one article. Doesn’t each one of those synthetic substances deserve its own research?

What about Genetically Engineered Foods?

I’ll cover those in a future article.

Natural vs. Synthetic: The Verdict

I realized that I was biased against anything non-natural. I assumed that if it’s natural, then it’s better. Apparently that’s not the truth.

  • I was surprised to learn that synthetic substances can be exactly the same as natural ones. Or that in some cases they’re safer than natural ones.
  • I used to think that of things like poison ivy and snake bites as natural, toxic substances, not apple ingedients!
  • I feel safer now with a lot more choices available. Hey all those product labels that include synthetic substances are not “bad” by default any more!

But there’s one more thing that I find striking…

Should we really separate natural from synthetic?

We’re fixated on “nature’s way.” Hey, we even thought of IVF babies as “less,” esp. when IVF was still new. We are still eager to accept that synthetic is by default worse than natural. Even educated people are easily biased about this subject (yes, I’m talking about myself!)

I’ve been thinking hard about it. Why are we so eager to condemn anything “non-natural?”

Aren’t we, humans, part of nature? Isn’t our intelligence part of nature? If animal products are considered natural, shouldn’t our products, the ones produced through our intelligence, also be considered natural?

Why do we have to call anything man-made as non-natural?

This is a philosophical question, and I do plan to write about my theory later on this series.

For now, I want to ask you to leave a comment and let me know: What insights did you gain from this article? What’s your experience with natural and synthetic substances?

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