Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Delusions of Goodness

One of my favorite scenes is what I call the "Chemical Corridor" down the New Jersey Turnpike. It's captivating in its utter unnaturalness. It jars with every sensibility of mine in terms of aesthetics, stands against everything I believe in (to be addressed on Friday) in terms of natural products and nature, and is just inherently alien. I'd love to photograph it; alas, I've never been in a car standing still long enough to do so.

The Chemical Corridor is where many of the so-called "natural flavorings" are developed. It houses some of the largest companies which manipulate molecules to give you an experience of food which lies in conjunction with your expectations--fries are crispy, cookies are crunchy, chocolate is chocolate-y, and strawberry-flavored anything tastes like strawberries (source: Fast Food Nation). It is the heart of everything synthetic and unnatural.

Which begs the question of what exactly constitutes "natural"? On a molecular level, the vanillin in a vanilla bean and the vanillin extracted from waste wood are EXACTLY the same. The reason why genuine vanilla extract sells at a premium over the vanillin extract? Because it comes from vanilla beans. The example that Schlosser gives in his book concerns almond flavoring--extracted from the pits of peaches and apricots, it has trace amounts of cyanide. Mixing clove oil and amyl acetate, on the other hand, has no cyanide. But the first is a "natural" flavoring, and eagerly consumed, whereas the second ends up in cheap almond-flavored...stuff, for want of a better word.

Another issue with the terms "natural" and "unnatural" has to do with the connotation of purity, wholesomeness, and health. I'm staring at an advertisement for an all-natural body wash (we're going to ignore the fact that deriving some of the ingredients from plants is hardly a natural process) that uses safflower oil as the main cleanser. It has, as a side-by-side comparision, the chemical sodium lauryl sulfate, a chemical that is frequently used in soaps and shampoos. It lists the pros of safflower oil and the cons of SLS, and it's pretty obvious, at first glance, which one is better for you.

After a second glance (this ad really rankled me, and you'll soon see why) it becomes quite obvious that safflower oil is not, in fact, the main cleansing ingredient, as SLS is in conventional soapy products. It is, in fact, merely the agent by which the cleaning agents are carried. And there is nothing to substantiate the claim that someone with sensitive-enough skin wouldn't react to cleansers derived from coconut oil. Lastly, there is nothing to keep you from using the body wash to clean your garage floor, as SLS is. It wouldn't be very cost-effective, but you could, if you wanted to.

Of course, advertisers have to make the product look good--they have to sell a "lifestyle". When you get right down to the molecules, it really doesn't matter where it comes from--you take enough, it'll kill you. Tea tree oil is an effective mold-killer but it's also toxic to cats. I also find it smirk-worthy to note that nobody objects to drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes--the latter pours at least 60 carcinogenic compounds down your lungs. And the greens profess to be irked that the fumes from an occasional bleaching of the toilet bowl are irritating to the lungs....

The point is, "natural" is all in our heads. Sure, cleaning agents might be derived from plants, but does the "privilege" of coming from a plant necessarily make a molecule any more "natural"? The Green Guide recommends using plant-based ethanol as a stain remover--ethanol is ethanol is ethanol is ethanol. It's what gets you drunk; whether it comes from plants or distilling vodka doesn't matter a hoot, the molecular formula is still C2H5OH, and it still works the same way.

Maybe natural products are better for us. But first we have to quit deluding ourselves when we pick up a $5 bottle of all-natural spray cleaner, and realize that what we are paying for is the privilege of knowing that everything in that bottle was somehow derived from plants. It does not mean that the products are necessarily any safer, and it does not mean that the product is necessarily any better for the planet than, say, sodium carbonate (washing soda), which simply dissolves into comparatively simple ions. Let's take a good hard look at what's in the bottle first, before patting ourselves on the back.

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