Determining the 'Naturalness' of a product
By Andrea DesJardins
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As consumers become more aware of the impact our industrial processes have on our health and the environment, more and more people are demanding 'natural' products. But what exactly is a 'natural' product?

Natural vs. Artificial

The definition of 'natural' is "produced or existing in nature." The definition of 'artificial' is "made by human work." In contrast, the definition of 'synthetic' is "produced by chemical synthesis, not by natural process."

There are two types of products that often carry the 'natural' label. The first are products that use natural materials to produce a product that would appear on its own without human intervention, which is the true definition of natural. The second are products made from natural ingredients but that would not otherwise exist on its own, without human intervention.

Lets look at a couple quick examples:

An example of a natural product made from natural ingredients is wine. The fruit, sugar and yeast used to make wine occur naturally and do not require human intervention to begin the fermentation process to make alcohol. The only reason humans do intervene in the fermentation process is that it is more efficient to make alcohol under controlled conditions, and a better quality product is produced. 

Another example of a natural product made from natural ingredients is soap. Soap is made from fats and alkali. The process of putting the fat and alkali together and forming soap can and does occur in nature, although the process is uncommon. The first soaps were made from wood ashes -- a natural alkali -- and oils, and they had a tendency toward harshness. Today soaps made under controlled circumstances can result in products that are extremely mild yet effective.

In contrast, an example of an 'artificial' product made from natural ingredients is chocolate cake. The flour, sugar, cocoa, butter, eggs and other ingredients are certainly natural, but cake would not exist on its own without human intervention. The only way a cake can be produced is when humans mix the appropriate ingredients and apply heat to it. Thus, in the most basic definition, cake is an artificial product.

Do these examples square with the typical understanding of natural and artificial? Well, perhaps the natural examples do, but generally one does not see cake defined as an artificial product (at least not "made-from-scratch" cakes), so thinking of 'artificial' in this way may require a paradigm shift.

Artificial vs. Synthetic

Actually, most consumers think of 'artificial' and 'synthetic' as being equivalent, but there is a clear distinction. While 'artificial' products require human intervention, they can be made from natural ingredients. On the other hand, 'synthetic' products not only require human intervention, but they must be produced by chemical synthesis (i.e. the combining of parts or elements so as to form a whole, a compound, etc., which would occur only in a laboratory). In other words, synthetic products are made from ingredients that do not occur in nature, or, at the very least, from ingredients that do not occur independently in nature.

Why this distinction? Because many of the chemical ingredients used to create synthetic products do occur in nature. Many of the organic chemicals that are commonly used in manufacturing processes are found in small quantities in plant matter. In fact, ancient plant matter is the source of the petroleum that is the basis from which many of these chemicals are derived.

Organic versus Organic

The scientific definition of organic is "of, like or derived from living organisms." 

The common public interpretation of organic is as in 'organic food,' which is "a plant product grown without pesticides or synthetic chemical fertilizers and meeting other standards as put forth by the state in which the product is grown." 

There is a HUGE difference between these two descriptions, but manufacturers are not required to define their interpretation of the term 'organic' when used on any product other than an agricultural one.

Technically speaking, some chemicals derived from petroleum can be defined as 'natural' as long as they also exist 'naturally' in other biological sources. Many scientists will argue that the word 'natural' has little meaning because many of the industrial chemicals that consumers want to avoid come from natural sources and are therefore 'natural' themselves.

The difference between chemicals existing in natural products and being derived from natural products is that single compounds almost never exist in nature. While the chemical called 'phenol' may be a component of a naturally occurring product, such as a plant, phenol does not occur by itself. The only way for phenol to exist by itself, which it must if it is going to be used as an ingredient in a product or process, is for humans to separate the phenol from the original source. When human intervention is introduced the end product ceases to be natural.

Further, synthetic ingredients can be made from 'natural' sources. Strictly speaking, there is no difference between crude petroleum and fresh sources except time and physics. In other words, a product derived only in the laboratory is no more natural when it is derived from a fresh product, such as coconut oil, than it would if it were derived from crude petroleum. The primary difference is that coconut oil is a renewable source while crude oil is not, but a compound derived from coconut oil is absolutely no different chemically than the same compound derived from crude oil (though there are many who would argue this point with me).

This is the gray area of the 'natural product' debate.

Determining the 'naturalness' of a product

When a consumer is trying to decide how natural a product is, they often look to the label for information. Manufacturers know this. They also know that 'natural' can be so loosely defined that they can state on their label "contains no synthetic ingredients" or "derived from natural sources" and be within the letter of the law, even if the product itself is not natural. This can make it virtually impossible to be an informed shopper if one is not armed with a virtual arsenal of ingredient information.

When it comes to personal products, manufacturers are required by law to list the ingredients in the product. However, this is not the case with many other products used around the home, and it is very difficult to obtain ingredient information from the manufacturer.

While the personal product labeling law does provide some information to the consumer, it is not by any means perfect. The problem is that while the FDA does technically regulate personal products, there is very little enforcement of the laws. Thus, many manufacturers get away with mislabeling by hiding ingredients under pseudonyms (i.e. not using the accepted chemical name for an ingredient), or by dropping some ingredients from the label all together.

The building blocks of synthetic chemicals

In pure synthetic chemistry, organic chemical compounds are made from small building blocks of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In theory one could take the individual atoms and put them together to form whole compounds, but in reality this rarely, if ever works. It is far more efficient to derive synthetic compounds from larger building blocks that occur naturally. For example, the synthetic shampoo ingredient 'Sodium Lauryl Sulfate' is made from the naturally occurring Lauric Acid, which is one of the 'fatty acids' that make up oils. Coconut oil is very high in Lauric Acid, so it is often used as the source because it is more efficient to derive it from coconut oil than from other sources. However, when compared to petroleum derived sources, coconut oil is more expensive, so some manufacturers may opt for the cheaper petroleum based version of Lauric Acid rather than coconut based. Either way, the resulting Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is chemically equivalent.

For products that aren't subject to labeling laws, the consumer is on their own to determine the relative naturalness of a product. While manufacturers do not have to list ingredients on their labels, they are required to list all hazardous ingredients on a document called a Material Safety Data Sheet. (Click here to see some MSDSs for common household products)

An MSDS is primarily intended for use by emergency personnel in the event of an accident involving large quantities of the product, but it is also supposed to be made available to the public through the Superfund Amendments Reauthorization Act (SARA) Title IX Community Right to Know law. Unfortunately, loopholes in the law allow manufacturers to claim that ingredients are 'proprietary' and are therefor exempt from listing them specifically. However, they are still required to provide all health and safety information related to the product. Sometimes this information is useful, but often it is not. Further, a consumer most often must ask the manufacturer for a copy of the MSDS, and while they are supposed to comply with the law they often do not.

To further complicate matters, the ingredients listed on a label may either reflect the starting ingredients (i.e. the flour, sugar and eggs in a cake), or they may reflect the results of the chemical reaction of the ingredients after they are added together.

For example, a bar of soap may list the following ingredients:

"Olive oil, Palm oil, Coconut oil, water, sodium hydroxide"
Or it may list:
"Sodium Olivate, Sodium Palmitate, Sodium Cocoate, glycerine"
From the consumer's point of view, the first list of ingredients appears more natural than the second list, but both accurately reflect the product. The confusion comes when a product contains both natural and synthetic ingredients. It is often difficult for a consumer to distinguish the difference between the natural and synthetic ingredients when the chemical names are used.

Consumers who truly wish to understand the ingredients listed on a label should refer to a good chemical dictionary such as "Milady's Skin Care and Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary" by Natalia Michalun, M. Varinia Michalun. While this book doesn't go into much detail about the ingredients, it will help the consumer start to identify those that are naturally occurring and those that are synthesized in the laboratory.

What difference does it make?

This is truly the crux of the whole 'natural product' debate. Whether one decides to use only completely natural products or products synthetically derived from natural plant sources or a combination of the two is a personal decision. While most people believe that 'natural' equals 'non-toxic,' this isn't necessarily the case. Many naturally occurring chemicals can have harmful effects on humans, while in some cases their synthetic cousins may have the toxic component removed. 

When it comes to using natural products, personal values systems are often put to the test. If personal health is the reason you are looking for natural products, then you have to know something about the health effects of the various ingredients. In many cases the ingredients added to enhance the benefits of a product also carry some sort of health effect, from mild to severe. 

Some of these ingredients may be sensitizers, irritants, neurotoxins or carcinogens, or they may enhance the toxicity of another ingredient (be chemical synergists). In fact, it is often hard to judge the overall health impact of a synthetic product from the ingredients because finished products are rarely tested and therefore the synergistic effect of the product is unknown. 
'Synergism' is the combined action of a chemical mixture being greater in total effect than the sum of their individual effects
The problem with selecting only 'all natural' products is that one might compromise on product effectiveness. This is one reason that so many synthetic products exist on store shelves today.

In some cases, products derived from synthetic ingredients may be superior to their natural cousins. This is certainly the case for soap when it is used for anything other than cleaning the skin. Natural soap can be excellent for cleaning skin because the oils in the soap help replenish the skin's natural oils, and they provide nutrients such as vitamins. But when it comes to cleaning fibers or hard surfaces, natural soap does not do nearly as good a job. When used in laundry, for example, soap can build up in fabric fibers and cause 'soap scum' to form in the washing machine. The same is true when soap is used as a shampoo -- the soap will build up on the hair shaft and create mineral deposits that are not easily removed. So for some purposes, cleansers made with synthetic ingredients are superior to their natural equivalents -- provided that the synthetic ingredients are not toxic.

When it comes to personal care products especially, selecting products of least toxicity is important. Personal care products, of all the products we use around our homes, are the one class of products that come in contact with our skin or lungs on the most frequent basis. The skin is not an impermeable barrier, and in some cases, products are formulated specifically to penetrate the skin. When a product applied to the skin penetrates the skin then it will carry whatever chemicals are present in the product into the bloodstream and be distributed throughout the body. Additionally, some products that also contain volatile ingredients (e.g. fragrances) can be both absorbed by the skin and inhaled by the lungs, thus increasing one's exposure to the hazardous effects of the ingredients.

If toxicity is not the issue when comparing a natural to a synthetic product, then environmental impact is. While 'all natural' products use renewable resources in their native form (or close to their native form, as vegetable oils, for example, must be pressed from their original source), products made from synthetic ingredients produce waste products in the process of their creation. Further, they may also require the use of hazardous or toxic chemicals in the production process, even if the final product itself is not hazardous or toxic and contains no traces of the hazardous/toxic intermediate. By using a process that may be inherently hazardous, a non-toxic synthetic ingredient may put humans and the environment at risk. Thus, when toxicity and effectiveness of a product are virtually equivalent, the 'all natural' product is definitely the better choice.

When choosing to be a safe shopper one must also become a savvy shopper. It isn't enough to look for the words 'natural' or 'organic' on a label -- one must closely examine the ingredients, ask questions about manufacturing processes, and weigh the overall value and impact of one product against its synthetic equivalent.