How natural is “all natural” really?

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John Found Dip. Chem., C. Chem., MRACI, MAICD

What is “natural” Officially?

The official definition of natural according to the Australia Department of Health is “an unprocessed chemical occurring in a natural environment or a chemical occurring in a natural environment that is extracted without chemical change by manual, mechanical or gravitational means; or dissolution in water; or flotation or a process of heating for the sole purpose of removing uncombined water.”

Not as natural as you think.

Many personal care products claim to be “natural” or “all natural”, unfortunately not many of them actually are by the official definition. Most ingredients we consider as natural are more precisely nature derived or naturally derived chemicals. Surprisingly, even things that we have always considered natural such as essential oils, glycerin, vegetable oils, most waxes and hydrogenated oils would not pass the test. Even water would not pass the criteria. Our scheme water contains low levels of bacteria and contaminant particles that need to be removed before it is considered compatible with our products. This cleansing process invariably changes water’s chemistry slightly.

Castor oil, for example, is actually toxic to humans when cold pressed and must be treated to render it safe. The process deems it to be a chemical because its chemistry has changed. Another example would be the zinc oxide used in sunscreens. Often referred to as “natural” and certainly occurs in nature as the mineral zincite. The cleansing and purification process applied to zinc oxide changes its content slightly from its native ore so it is deemed to be a chemical. The list is endless, egg white could be called “natural” but under the official definition it is not if it has been dried and reconstituted. The ACCC and TGA have been known to take action against the most egregious claims because the term “natural“ in most cases is technically misleading.

How do we tell a natural from a chemical ingredient?

Apart from the official definition, we often accept products as being natural because they are known traditionally or comply with our understanding of the term. As consumers we struggle at times with the huge amount of promotional material around our daily personal care and medicinal products. Most of us have an instinct for natural sounding names. Seemingly unpronounceable names that look like they have been made out of Lego bricks are probably synthetic chemicals. Those that sound like they could have been a tree or a flower are natural. A nice way to think but not always correct. The dangerously sounding chemical dihydrogen monoxide might sound a lot better if we called it by its common name, water. Most vegetable oils are technically medium chain triglycerides but sound a lot more friendly if you call them Olive or Coconut.

What is meant by nature identical?

Another often used phrase is “nature identical”, these ingredients occur in nature but are actually synthesised. The two vitamins, C and E, for example, can be extracted from citrus fruits and wheatgerm or be fully synthesised. They are called nature identical because the most sophisticated analytical instrument would have difficulty to differentiate between the synthesised and natural forms. The human body also has difficulty and processes the synthetic and natural versions in exactly the same way with exactly the same biochemical outcome.

How do I promote natural products?

We recommend to our clients that they use the term “nature derived” or “naturally sourced” or something similar. The terminology should at least try to be as truthful as possible. This is understandably difficult when competitors are making larger claims but it’s more accurate and at the very least legal.