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Media sources today are full of stories of chemicals in our food, in our environment, in our bodies.  The basic premise of these stories is that these chemicals, by their very nature as chemicals, must be harmful and therefore avoided.  Contrast this with the counter argument, also quite common in the same media sources, regarding all natural foods, supplements and general cure-alls which, by their very nature as being all natural, must be quite beneficial and at the very  least, not harmful.  This is a great misconception and ignores a simple basic truth that everything is made up of chemicals.  In fact, it is surprising to some people to learn that chemicals are the basic building blocks of the human body which is made up entirely of chemicals.  We contain at least 60 different chemicals, ranging from simple elements like carbon and iron, to other chemicals with very complex structures.

Many more different chemicals are found in nature.  Even the most sophisticated and talented synthetic chemist cannot replicate all of the substances found in nature.  More importantly, some of the most toxic substances known are 100% all natural.  But they are not all safe.  In fact very few substances are all safe.  The most basic principal of toxicology “The Dose Makes the Poison” is true, regardless of whether a substance is naturally occurring or designed by a chemist in the lab.   For example, pure water can be harmful and even deadly when too much is consumed too quickly.

The resources in this section elaborate on what constitutes a chemical regardless of whether natural or synthetic, how this designation relates to toxicology, natural and synthetic chemicals in foods, and usefulness of chemicals, whether synthetic or natural, in medicinal applications.


Overviews with more details about this topic

This is a good overview of this subject from a Scientific American  blog post:  :

Basic overview of “natural vs. synthetic”:

How this relates to Toxicology:  The text at this link does a good job of explaining that the source of a chemical (for example, natural vs. synthetic) does not determine its potential to cause harm.


Medicines and synthetic chemistry

More about Percy Julian and how in the 1930s he was the first to synthesize physostigmine.   This naturally occurring chemical is now an important pharmaceutical drug.

Still more on this pioneering achievement:


Natural vs. synthetic with emphasis on food

Fun blog covering the chemistry of everyday “stuff”, including an interesting take on the human impact on fruits and vegetables over time:

An interesting analysis from a New York Times writer about genotoxicity of chemicals found naturally in food..  Genotoxicity refers to the ability of a chemical to alter a cell’s DNA, either directly or indirectly, causing a mutation that could lead to cancer.

This resource provides more detail about this topic from the scientists named in the New York Times article above

Reference:  Natural and Synthetic Chemicals in the Diet: A Critical Analysis of Possible Cancer Hazards by Lois Swirsky Gold, Thomas H. Slone and Bruce N. Ames, in Food Safety and Food Quality, Issues in Environmental Science and Technology 15

  1. E. Hester & R. M. Harrison, eds. Cambridge, UK : Royal Society of Chemistry, pp. 95-128 (2001)


Basic resources that help to understand more about chemicals in general

What is a chemical? Everything is a chemical!  The most basic form of pure matter is an element.  There are 118 elements listed in the modern periodic table.

Pure gold is one example of an element.  If you were to break gold down to the smallest size possible, to a size where it still exhibits all of the properties of gold, you would be left with a single atom of pure gold.  Atoms are combined together to form more complex structures, called molecules.  When atoms from two or more elements are joined together, the molecule is also called a compound.  Everything around us is created from these molecules and compounds, from the air we breathe, to the food we eat and the bodies that carry us through our lives.  Your chemistry teacher was not lying when she proclaimed on your first day of class that “Chemistry is life”!

This resource is a basic primer on elements and  molecules (Elements and Molecules, 6:08).

A basic overview of chemical analysis of compounds:


Level: Beginner

Related topics:  Basics of Dose and Exposure, Water Intoxication (Hyponatremia).

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