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

natural vs. synthetic substances

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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  1. Whenever I hear someone say something is good b/c it is natural, I answer “So is arsenic.” Being from nature doesn’t always mean good for you. Love your points.

  2. Very interesting! You’ve given me something to think about. I like how you mention the “dose makes the poison”. Just today I talkd with a cousin who’s a dentist. I admited to her that for a while now I’ve been terrified of fluoride toothpaste. She explained that the difference is in the dose- and the dose in toothpaste is not toxic- on the contary, it helps restore enamel. (And xylitol will also help restore enamel)

    1. Hi Marli, exactly! Glad my article helped clarify what’s safe vs. what’s not. Feel free to share if you think it may help your friends/family too.

  3. Very interesting article! I really like how you present both sides and you don’t push one or the other. Also I have never called zucchini – courgettes before, unless that is a totally new vegetable I have never heard of haha.

  4. Thanks for trying to study this out for yourself and share your results, there is so much manipulative “scare” information out there that is trying to sell something. I get so tired of it.

  5. Sounds just like the arguments from the cigarette companies in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s Maria. Very logical, methodical, & very very damaging arguments for big industry!

    1. Sarah, Houses are not “natural”. Cars are not “natural”. Clothing is not “natural”. Do you skirts made of straw and live in the forest and ride horses because those are “natural”? Everything in the world around you is “synthetic”: clothes, containers of food that you buy in the store, everything in your car, all of the cosmetics and medicines you use, and everything that is involved in providing you with water, electricity, garbage disposal, your computer and your cell phone. Unless you only eat what you grow in your own garden, most of the food you have ever eaten in your lifetime has contained some sort of synthetic material.
      Think about this: the ONLY reason that we now “know” that tobacco product use leads to bad health outcomes is through science! The same scientific research methodology that determined that tobacco was not good has determined that other products are either neutral or actually good (and, found some other products that are harmful). So, if you believe that tobacco is “bad”, then you are saying that you accept the findings of science. Until Surgeon General Koop pointed out to the world that SCIENCE found that tobacco was “bad”, a lot of people agreed that they did not like having tobacco smoke in their environment, but no one was claiming tobacco use increased the chance of bad health outcomes. Today, 50 years later, science continues to study and analyze our environment. The same scientific method that tells you that tobacco is bad is telling us what Maria wrote. It is not propaganda. No corporation or political activist is paying Maria to write what she does, and no one is paying me to respond to you. Please be open-minded about science. Your life will someday depend on it.

  6. What I do know is that if the dose is right, and the chemicals are approved, then they are not toxic.
    This isn’t exactly right. In science we can’t say it isn’t toxic. We can only say “we have gathered evidence of it NOT being toxic”. Statistics calculate DIFFERENCE, not equality. But this is purely conceptual.

    What’s actually methodological is that our methods are not yet refined to accurately predict the whole dynamic of substances in our bodies (a fascinating field called pharmacodynamics). Neither do we predict how they get broken down (again, a fascinating field called pharmacokinetics). Obviously what’s natural may be detrimental to our health, but sure as hell we deal more efficiently with what we have evolved to eat, and most synthetic substances aren’t that, either because they aren’t found in nature or because they’re not found in nature in a specific form, or isolated (e.g. fructose is awesome, though not so much without the fiber fruits provide).

  7. Maria,
    Thank you for producing a very reasoned article – just what I would expect of a Stanford grad!
    It is really depressing how many people refuse to accept science. Please keep up the good work! I look forward to another post!