Title image courtesy of joeymanley, CCASA2.0 License

People, especially in Berkeley and in some other enclaves of California, are really into the whole “natural” thing, whether it be food ingredients or medicine, and are wary of “synthetic” chemicals. So today, I decided to highlight some of my favorite natural chemicals. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Petrichor: Petrichor (etymologically blood of stones) is the smell that is released from clays, rocks, and soils by humidity brought by an oncoming a rain storm, and is a mixture of various naturally occurring compounds. Some of these include pyridine, quinoline, carboxylic acids, nitro-phenolic compounds, and other oils. When scientists come up with a word to describe the chemicals that make the “smell of rain” to describe what others have traditionally called “earth perfume” (or for Doctor Who aficionados, the “smell of dust after rain”), you know that their job is awesome.

Hydroquinone and Hydrogen Peroxide: These chemicals are both made by a beetle, called the Bombardier beetle. It keeps them separated in two different sacs in its body. When it feels threatened, it will mix both of them together, with enzymes to speed the reaction. In an incredibly exothermic (heat producing) reaction, in which the hydroquinone gets oxidized to 1,4-Benzoquinone and the hydrogen peroxide will get reduced to water, the solution explodes onto the predator or annoying  creature nearby. This boiling, toxic mixture can be deadly to other insects, and nasty for humans.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): I know what you’re saying–no way this is natural–it’s a food additive. But it was first isolated in 1908 from seaweed. Now that’s “natural” if I’ve ever heard the word. Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is an amino acid, which is one of the 20 commonly occurring building blocks of proteins.  In fact, it is a non-essential amino acid. By saying “non-essential”, that simply means that humans can produce it on our own, and we don’t need glutamate as a dietary supplement. Without any glutamate, our proteins wouldn’t work properly, and life would probably cease to exist. MSG (which is a glutamate and a single sodium ion), has been naturally around in living systems, since, well life. Every time I go out for a meal, I make sure that the restaurant proudly serves their food with natural MSG.

Petroleum and Sugarcane: These naturally occurring energy dense compounds allow us to appreciate a high standard of living.

Petroleum is a mixture of many hydrocarbons, which are found naturally underground. They then go through a refinement (separation) process to make fuels. These “refined” fuels like diesel, kerosene, and gasoline are later burned, which can lead to lasting and irreversible environmental damage.

My love of baking has lead me to have an affair with molasses, which is the succulent syrupy sugar that comes straight from the sugarcane, and accompanies raw, unprocessed sugar (which is rather in tan color). After processing, or removing the molasses from the raw sugar, and boiling away enzymes, one is left with white sugar, which is pure sucrose (brown sugar is basically the same nutritionally as white sugar, just with a smudge of molasses added). Interestingly when one processes sugarcane to sugar, removing all the nutrients, there is basically no change in nutritional value.* Sugarcane is basically all sucrose. It makes baking yummy.

Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO): The name of this naturally occurring chemical is as sinister as it sounds. It’s ubiquitous–that is, it’s used all over the earth, from nuclear power plants to pesticides on farms, and is a main component of acid rain. This chemical when ingested, can disrupt the salt concentrations in our bodies (sodium and potassium), a condition called hyponatremia, leading to sickness or death. It is also used in fracking. Maybe not all “natural” chemicals are good. Please sign the petition to ban DHMO here or here. Save the environment!!

*The values for the sugarcane entry in the table from the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (for all nutrients other than sugar) are actually quite small. The difference between sugarcane and sugar, from a nutritional point of view, is basically nothing.

References (not linked):

Bear, IJ. and Thomas, RG. Nature of Argillaceious Odour. Nature. 201, 993 – 995. (1964).


Leave a Reply

1 comment

  1. Eugenia Vainberg

    Dear David,
    Article is so good.
    You are great.
    With love. Grandma Eugenia.