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Organic, Natural Compounds compared to synthetic ones, a Summary--jk

The ultimate test of a chemical for the rational person is the effects, not its processing and source.  In all instances the chemically purified, chemically modified form of a compound is superior to the in-plant form.  While those who come to the table with a religious fervor are beyond reason, they unfortunately are responsible for a number of common myths and an attitude toward manufactured compounds that causes much harm.  Many people who lack this fervor of the organic buffs, but dont know better, and so they end up wasting their money on organic compounds (billions of dollars a year).  Moreover, they harm themselves by not taking the better, synthetic, purified alternative (sometimes unto death).[i]   Ignorance and misinformation always has a price

[i]   My grandmother-in-law delayed 2 years the proper treatment of her bone cancer by seeking out a herbalist. 


1).   A molecule is a molecule.  Urea is urea.  No test has been able to distinguish a pure sample of the organic (made in body) urea for the synthetic (laboratory made).  Urea was the first organic compound to be made synthetically, back in the 1820s.  (Its synthesis called to question the assumption that organic compounds had a unique life force in them.)

2).  Purifying removes related compounds, which are nearly always not biologically useful.  There are very few instances where the body has a mechanism for converting related compound to a biological useful form.  An exception being some of compunds similar to vitamin A.  These related compounds are not more effective or beneficial than vitamin A, thus there is no speical, unique contribution by the related compounds, though the organic buffs claim such a difference.  Morever, in the vast majority of cases, the other compounds are not utilized, and in some cases related compounds are toxic. 

3).  Purification often removes pernicious compounds--the opposite of the claim by organic buff.  For example, they are 180 degrees off with whole wheat.  White bread is better than whole, because whole wheat has phyticc acid, which binds with calcium to form a compound that your body can't absorb.[i]   Ergot, a mold that can grow on damp grain yields a tincture that has been used for hundred by midwives to relax uterine muscles and thus easy labor.  However, the compound is quite toxic, and a consistent tincture is not possible because of the variation in production of alkaloids by the fungus.  It was after Sandoz Laboratory in Switzerland turned to investigating these ergot alkaloids, that several useful and safe substances were isolated and then marketed.   

4).  The natural form is better than the synthetic form.  That is 180 degrees off.  For seldom does the drug industry stop with the medicinal organic form, but rather spends millions on improve the compound.  The modifications are done in order to:  (a) improve absorption, (b) resist degradation in the liver and other tissues, (c) make the molecule more available in the targeted tissue, (d) make more bioactive, (d) reduce side effects, and (e) add new useful actions.   For example, to lysergic acid Albert Hofmann added diethylamide, and created the useful, most potent, safe, and fascinating drug commonly known as LSD.  It was his 25th derivative of lysergic acid, thus also called LSD-25.[ii]  By increasing the potency, the side effects per dose are reduced.    

5).  That natural forms are free of the taint of chemical processing.  Again, well off the mark.  As pointed out in the article below by J Yerger, organic compounds are often extensively processed in preparation for being marketed.  Moreover, synthetic compounds are subject to processes such as crytstallization and distillation which remove over 99.9% of the compounds used in its manufacture.  

6)  Natural, organic chemical are safer.  Wrong again.  Most poison are from plant and animal sources.  They have evolved these chemicals to discourage predation by animals and grazing by plants.  Secondly synthetic coloring agents, drugs etc. must, because of regulations undergo extensive testing, however, in general natural, organic, chemicals are excluded from safety testing. 

[i]   A panel of doctors some years ago for Consumer Report Magazine analyzed the difference, and councluded that the contributioin of calcum to the diet and the fact that about 25% of adults consume under the recommended amount of calcium entails that the amount obtained from bread is significant, more significant that the additional fiber found in whole wheat bread.  Moreover, in a separate article they found that once the contravening  variables are removed, studies were not able to prove a signficant health benefit for additional fiber in diet. 

[ii]   A delightful account of the discovery of LSD is to be found in Albert Hofmann, LSD My Problem Child (published in Europe as LSD My Child), translated by Jonathan Ott, McGraw-Hill Book Company, NY, 1980. 



     COMPOUND                           AROMA


2, 4-decadienal                            rancid

ethylgujacol                                 smoke

2-ethyl-3-5-dimethylpyrazine        chocolate

2-ethyl-3-6-dimethylpyrazzine       chocolate

2, 4-nanadienal                            rancid

methylsalicates                             cinnamon

b-damascenone                            tea

DMTS                                          sulfur

Isovaleraldehyde                         sweet

a-ionone                                     flowers

linalool                                      flowers


From this list of compounds one would suppose that the food chemists working for Twinkies were plying their trade, but this is merely a list of the chemicals which contribute to the aromatic qualities of coffee (Scientific American, The Complexity, June 2002, p. 87).  And these are only the chemicals that contribute to the aromatic properties of coffee.


What is the difference between artificial and natural flavors?

J. Yerger
State College, Pa.

Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, explains.

Natural and artificial flavors are defined for the consumer in the Code of Federal Regulations. A key line from this definition is the following: " a natural flavor is the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional." Artificial flavors are those that are made from components that do not meet this definition.

The question at hand, however, appears to be less a matter of legal definition than the "real" or practical difference between these two types of flavorings. There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings. They are both made in a laboratory by a trained professional, a "flavorist," who blends appropriate chemicals together in the right proportions. The flavorist uses "natural" chemicals to make natural flavorings and "synthetic" chemicals to make artificial flavorings. The flavorist creating an artificial flavoring must use the same chemicals in his formulation as would be used to make a natural flavoring, however. Otherwise, the flavoring will not have the desired flavor. The distinction in flavorings--natural versus artificial--comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural.

This issue is somewhat confusing to the average consumer in part because of other seeming parallels in the world. One can, for example, make a blue dye out of blueberry extract or synthetic pigments. These dyes are very different in chemical composition yet both yield a blue color. Similarly, consider one shirt made from wool and another from nylon. Both are shirts, but they have very different chemical compositions. This diversity of building blocks is not possible in flavorings--one makes a given flavor only by using specific chemicals. Thus, if a consumer purchases an apple beverage that contains an artificial flavor, she will ingest the same primary chemicals that she would take in if she had chosen a naturally flavored apple beverage.

When making a flavor, the flavorist always begins by going to the scientific literature and researching what chemicals nature uses to make the desired flavor. He then selects from the list of flavor components found in, say, real apples, generally simplifying natures list to eliminate those chemicals that make little contribution to taste or are not permitted owing to toxicity. (Nature has no restrictions on using toxic chemicals, whereas the flavorist does.) The flavorist then either chooses chemicals that are natural (isolated from nature as described above) or synthetic chemicals (made by people) to make the flavor.

So is there truly a difference between natural and artificial flavorings? Yes. Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized. Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. The search for "natural" sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical. Natural coconut flavorings, for example, depend on a chemical called massoya lactone. Massoya lactone comes from the bark of the Massoya tree, which grows in Malaysia. Collecting this natural chemical kills the tree because harvesters must remove the bark and extract it to obtain the lactone. Furthermore, the process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemists laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.

Answer posted on July 29, 2002