What Organic and Chemical Actually Mean: A Glossary of Hijacked Terms

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The language of science has been hijacked. Those who are looking to make a quick buck (or in the case of the organic industry, 43 billion bucks) have no qualms about twisting the definition of highly precise scientific terminology to suit their own profit-driven agendas. Misinterpreting scientists’ words is also a common tactic employed by fearmongering environmentalists and activists.

In fact, the problem of hijacked scientific terminology is so great that ACSH’s Dr. Josh Bloom wrote an entire book about it.

"Organic" and "chemical" don't mean what you think they mean."Organic" and "chemical" don't mean what you think they mean.

So, in honor of Dr. Bloom’s new book, I have created a brief glossary of the some of the most commonly abused, misused, and misunderstood scientific terms. (Notably, the health food and fad diet industries are among the biggest abusers.)

Organic

Even the Most Interesting Man in the World had trouble with organic chemistry.Even the Most Interesting Man in the World had trouble with organic chemistry.

Scientific meaning: With a few notable exceptions, such as carbon dioxide, the word “organic” refers to any molecule that contains carbon. Hence, the field of organic chemistry (known as “orgo” among students) examines the reactions of carbon-containing compounds.

(As a side note, organic chemistry is rather difficult, as it requires a lot of memorization and pattern recognition. In organic chemistry labs, it is not uncommon to spend several hours mixing one white powder with another white powder to make a third white powder. This can, over time, drive people crazy.)

Popular meaning: The popular meaning of “organic” has nothing to do with chemistry. Instead, when used by foodies and health gurus, it generally refers to food that was grown “without chemicals or pesticides.” (More on that below.) Many people also believe that “organic” means food is healthier, tastier, and better for the environment. None of that is true. Essentially, it is a feel-good word without any meaning.

Chemical

Scientific meaning: “Chemical” is a catch-all term that refers to either an element (think: the periodic table) or compounds (i.e., combinations of elements that make molecules). Everything is a chemical. You are a collection of chemicals.

Popular meaning: In common parlance, chemicals are bad. People seem to use the word to refer to synthetic or artificial chemicals, as if they are somehow different from chemicals derived from nature. (They aren’t.) As Dr. Bloom writes in his new book, “There is a widespread, vague belief that substances that are derived from nature are either not really chemicals after all, or a ‘different’ type of chemical, which doesn’t really count.”

Pesticide

Scientific meaning: Any chemical, generally used in an agricultural setting, that can be used to kill another unwanted organism. Pesticides can be natural (e.g., Bt toxin) or synthetic (e.g., DDT).

Popular meaning: Used by society, the term “pesticide” seems to imply a synthetic chemical that can kill both insects and humans. This would explain why organic food companies claim to grow their food “without pesticides.” But that’s simply not true. Organic food companies do use pesticides, just not synthetic ones. And natural pesticides (e.g., rotenone) can be every bit as deadly as synthetic ones. Other natural pesticides (e.g., Bt toxin) target only insects and are completely harmless to humans.

(Note: The debate over the supposed “deadliness” of pesticides is mostly pointless anyway because the amounts used are small. The dose makes the poison.)

Toxin

Scientific meaning: Even among scientists, the word “toxin” is vague. In general, it is most often applied to proteins and other molecules produced by organisms with the intent of hurting or killing other organisms.

Popular meaning: The public uses the word “toxin” synonymously with “chemical.” That is very, very wrong.