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We eat what we are – let’s detoxify the word ‘chemical’

One of the best tricks of making a horror movie is not to show too much, allowing the imagination to create the monster. We can’t see molecules, which is what makes them scary. We fill this vacuum with…

Chemicals tend to get a bad press, but we wouldn’t be here without them. abiomkar

One of the best tricks of making a horror movie is not to show too much, allowing the imagination to create the monster. We can’t see molecules, which is what makes them scary. We fill this vacuum with fairy stories about what molecules are. We stereotype them as toxic, or dangerous.

To say chemicals are toxic is rather like saying people are bad. Some are. Most aren’t. It depends. Most molecules you meet are not dangerous, which helps explain why you’re alive.

My students and I work with molecules every day: we study what they do, and how to make them. None of us has ever seen a molecule with our naked eyes, but we know they’re there, and what they look like. Understanding molecules is like learning a language: it takes time, but eventually you come to see the beauty.

Just as a language can be used to create things that are beautiful, or ugly, inspiring or harmful, so atoms can be arranged to form molecules that are tasty or toxic, fragrant or explosive.

“Molecule” is another word for “chemical”. Typically we talk about a molecule as a single thing, and a chemical as a collective – rather like a person is part of a population. The whole world consists of molecules – we are immersed in them. But never is our relationship as intimate as when we eat them.

sean dreilinger.

Food is a bunch of chemicals, nothing more, nothing less. When we eat, we eat chemicals. Some are simple, such as water or salt. Some are complex, such as the proteins in steak. But they’re all chemicals.

There is no part of food that is not chemical. If you eat an apple that weighs a hundred grams, you have eaten a hundred grams of chemicals.

Why are people alarmed by this idea? It’s partly that the word “chemical” has had a bad public relations run. There’s a feeling that natural “things” are good for us, but synthetic “chemicals” are bad.

This is, of course, nonsense. I work on a drug given to people suffering from the parasitic disease Bilharzia, which is extraordinarily effective. Millions of lives have been transformed. The drug is a synthetic chemical that does not occur in nature.

Humanity discovered it by making it. We should be proud. I’m not so keen on strychnine, although you find that in nature. I’d rather not.

The chemicals that make up our food are things we’ve evolved to eat so are typically good for us – that’s why they’re part of our diet.

We’ve co-evolved with the apple so that we find it tasty. It’s tasty because there are a load of chemicals in the apple that fit into things on our tongue that fire neurons to our brain in a pattern that the brain interprets as “tasty".

We don’t like a moldy apple because there are different chemicals in there that are warning us the apple’s no longer good to eat. Our sense of taste and the apple developed in tandem. If we welcomed our alien overlords to Planet Earth with a gift basket of apples, it’s touch-and-go whether that would go down well.

We can make the chemicals responsible for these nice tastes in the lab. Many of those chemicals are organic molecules (meaning they are constructed of a framework of the chemical carbon, not that they have been reared on a free-range farm).

Many of the chemicals are metal ions such as iron and copper that we need for our bodies to function – the same elements we find in cars and buildings.

The reason we can’t make a taste exactly like an apple in a lab is because the apple taste is a symphony of chemicals, rather than just one. It’s hard for us to make an apple.

We can approximate it by making some of the things in apples, and those chemicals would be exactly the same as the ones in the apple that was grown, but it’s not likely we’re going to make a synthetic apple any time soon. Why bother? The tree makes the chemical symphony just fine using sunlight, water and air.


I enjoy understanding the molecular nature of things. I know the structure of the molecule that’s responsible for the colour of red wine. When I look at the molecular structure I find it beautiful, and when I look at red wine I sometimes think of that molecule, and its trillions of brothers, tumbling through my glass and catching the light.

When I sip wine I think about all the chemicals going into my body, and the incredible sophistication of my handling all the molecular diversity I’m drinking.

The alcohol goes one way, the red colour goes another, and all the other molecules go their different ways in a seamless process my ancestors developed.

I repurpose the chemicals I eat to construct the fabric of my body, such as the chemical in my blood that lets me use oxygen, or the chemical in the back of my eye that lets me see.

This choreography with the chemicals we eat happens because I am a chemical thing. I consume chemicals and enjoy them because I am a creature of chemical evolution.

I need chemicals to survive, and to enjoy life. I take in chemicals and they become part of me. When I die, I’ll return myself to the earth and perhaps become part of an apple. Our world, in all its breathtaking diversity, is completely composed of chemicals.

As this is the International Year of Chemistry we ought to remember this idea, and treat the word “chemical” with the respect it deserves – as a broad but accurate description of what we are.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Garry Egger

    Professor of Health and Human Sciences at Southern Cross University

    Great little piece. Many thanks. Would like to explore this more with a view to a simplistic explanation for the public for genetic and epigenetic evolution.

  2. Peter Miller

    Digital Artist/Sound Designer/Composer at Scribbletronics

    Ha. Great Matthew! Should be required reading for every peddler of pseudoscience on the planet.

  3. Paul Rogers

    logged in via Twitter

    A common sense premise, for the most part. Some natural toxins like certain marine and amphibian poisons are orders of magnitude greater in toxicity than most common pesticides -- and the potent botanical poisons like strychnine, monofluoroacetate, aconitine, to name a few, give the lie to the safety of all things natural.

    The 'dose makes the poison', as Paracelsus warned us. Even vitamins A and D can be potent poisons at the appropriate dose and delivery. (Polar bear liver anyone?) And as someone…

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  4. Damien Gildea


    This is a great article, well written, thanks Matthew.

    I feel many recent articles on The Conversation have struggled to communicate the scientific or academic rigor to a broader audience, falling down in too many areas to truly fulfill the original concept of The Conversation. Maybe the subjects are too complicated and broad in scope, or the experts simply not good enough writers. This piece seems to strike a good balance in simply and smoothly communicating the science as it is relevant to an informed lay person.

    It should be required reading for all working in the health, nutrition and fitness industries and I'l love to see it reproduced to a wider audience in the mainstream media.

  5. Ian Musgrave

    Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide

    As a chemically-oriented academic I often have to deal with the "chemicals are bad" crowd. This is a great piece which I will circulate widely. Thanks!

  6. Rob Riel


    Yes, quite true. And quite obvious, as well ... so why the problem?

    If you confect a threat, maybe you're just being cautious. Some pretty far-fetched assertions can get bruited about (just ask Al Gore), and quite a few get research funding, in case there might be 'something' to it (say, a 50 cm rise in sea levels over 100 yrs, rather than 5 metres in 20). Much hyperbole and wild speculation is excused if the purported objective is to avoid a negative outcome.

    If you imagine an opportunity, though…

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  7. Bob Bobsson


    I see the point you're trying to make. And it isn't completely invalid. However, you're arguing the semantics of the word when the pragmatics of its context often makes it quite clear which sense is being used.

  8. Grendelus Malleolus

    Senior Nerd

    We realise there is a problem when you walk into SciTech and find among the great education toys a chemistry set labelled "Chemical Free".

    In response to Bob Bobsson - unfortunately the context has become blurred, particularly in the example above where the fear of the potential risk of toxic exposure has captured the word 'chemical' in the minds of many.

    I would love to suggest this is an issue requiring better science education, but it is even more basic than that. I think articles like this are useful at raising the discussion once again and hopefully gaining further exposure.

    I would like to see a similar discussion around food and terms like "natural" that are used as marketing levers alongside those driving a fear of "chemicals".

  9. Nicholas Aberle

    I once told a slightly new-age hairdresser that I was an organic chemist. She was so excited, thinking that finally there was a pharmacist out there dispensing happy pills of plant-based materials...

    Good luck trying to reclaim "chemical" in the popular lexicon. We're getting even more specific now - "carbon" is becoming a dirty word.

    A related topic that one part makes me laugh and another part makes me cringe is the pseudo-chemical names used in "nutraceutical" or cosmetics advertising. I heard of some moisturiser recently that has "amino-peptides". Awesome! As if there was some kind of peptide that did NOT contain amines. And "beta-hydroxies"!! Beta to what?? (To the non-organic chemists, beta indicates a position in a molecule that is two carbons along the chain).

    1. Peter Miller

      Digital Artist/Sound Designer/Composer at Scribbletronics

      In reply to Nicholas Aberle

      A little while ago I wrote about a skin care product 'inspired' by DNA research that 'contains a blast of powerful vitamins, antioxidants, and a patented newly discovered exotic plant enzyme, OGG-1 (8-oxo-guanine DNA glycosylase), that kills harmful free radicals'.

      Kills 'em DEAD, you hear me? Truly AWESOME.

  10. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Enjoyed the lighthearted article - it's true that for many "chemical" has become a dirty word . However ,misuse and careless use of many new compounds has happened , at the work place , at petrol outlets etc. Rachel Carson did a good deed in exposing misuse of dangerous new "wonder sprays". This does not mean that newer synthetic herbicides etc are dreadful and to be avoided.The anti-chemical push has evolved partly as a result of justified whistle- blowing, and partly from marketers of many…

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