Natural Flavors Are More Radioactive Than Artificial Ones.

By Josh Bloom — Feb 12, 2016
It is a little known, and extremely unimportant fact that chemicals from plants are slightly radioactive, while chemicals from crude oil are not. This has no health consequences whatsoever, but the reason why is quite interesting. It is also the basis for carbon 14 dating.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 4.36.53 PMI criticize scare headlines all the time. So, to be fair, I'm going to criticize this one: It is technically correct, but meaningless. It is also a really lame scare, since no one will believe it, and sounds too crazy to be believed. But, it is actually true.

The only reason I'm writing about it at all is because:

  1. Although I've written (many times) that the synthetic and natural versions of a given chemical are identical in every way, this is not precisely correct. There is a tiny difference, which will surprise you.
  2. The science is very cool.
  3. You've probably never heard this before.
  4. It is the same principle that allows fossils to be dated.

Let's use wintergreen as an example. The principle flavor in wintergreen extract is a chemical called methyl salicylate. The chemical that is the artificial flavor in wintergreen products is also called methyl salicylate. They are one and the same. Mostly.

(NOTE: Natural oil of wintergreen may taste different than its artificial counterpart because it contains a variety of trace chemicals that are produced in the plant that give it a richer flavor. These additional flavors are not present in synthetic methyl salicylate. It is "purer." This is true for most artificial flavors. (The presence of small amounts of multiple chemicals is the reason that different wines have different flavors and smells.)

So, even though methyl salicylate is methyl salicylate, regardless of where it comes from, there is a real, but infinitesimal difference between the two, and it can only be measured by a very specialized instrument. Neither your body nor any other analytical instrument can tell the difference.

The methyl salicylate from the wintergreen plant is slightly radioactive. The stuff from the factory is not. How can this be? It has to do with an isotope of carbon that is called carbon-14 or 14C.

Almost all elements have one or more naturally occurring forms that have different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus. (Please don't hang yourself. I'm almost done.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 4.15.46 PM

Carbon has six of them (and six protons), which is why its atomic weight is 12. But, one percent of all the carbon on earth has one extra neutron. It is called carbon-13 or 13C and co-exists with plain old stinky carbon, So your Pepsi will have 99% CO2 and 1% 13CO2. Big deal.

Here's where it gets interesting. There is a miniscule amount 0.0000000001% of another isotope called C-14, or 14C, which is formed in the atmosphere. But, unlike the other two isotopes, C-14 is radioactive.

Since all plants take up CO2, they are getting a diet which consists of mostly CO2, but also 0.0000000001% 14CO2. The longer the plant lives, the more 14CO2 it will take in and use to build leaves, roots, etc. And, as the plant incorporates more C-14, the more radioactive it will become. When the plant dies, this process stops.

Not only does C-14 stop accumulating once the plant dies, but it actually starts to disappear very slowly over time. Because, like all radioactive substances C-14, decays over time. This is the basis of carbon radio dating the technique that is used to measure how old things are.

So, now, let's see what this means for wintergreen Life Savers.

The raw material for industrial production of methyl salicylate is phenol, which comes from crude oil. Since crude oil has been sitting underground for a bazillion years, it will have little or no C-14, so it will not be radioactive. But the same chemical obtained from the plant will contain minuscule, but measurable, amounts of radioactive methyl salicylate.

The amount of radioactivity from wintergreen extract is of no consequence at all. Wintergreen candy, which is made from the synthetic flavor may help your breath, but it's not going to give you radiation poisoning. Not even close.

If this hideous article gave you a headache, fear not. Aspirin is also manufactured from crude oil. It's not radioactive either.

Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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