The False Dichotomy: Chemistry vs. Nature

Natural, artificial, synthetical. Chemistry vs. nature – who wins?

"Not everything that's natural is good for you. Asbestos minerals, for example, can cause cancer", I claimed at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. I had learned about minerals and mineral structures in university, and at this particular moment, on Christmas Eve during a conversation about "natural products", realized that the concept "mineral" is a blurry one in people's minds.



  1. The word "asbestos" comes from the Greek word for "inextinguishable" [1] and refers to its high heat resistance. That's why asbestos minerals were used in construction as an insulating material. The use is now prohibited in many countries.
  2. Asbestos is a general term for a group of fibrous silicate minerals with similar structure and properties, and not a mineral itself.


Minerals build rocks. A rock is an assemblage of minerals. For example the rock granite is predominantly composed of three minerals: feldspar, quartz and mica.

Many people believe that ALL minerals are healthy. Now, we have to distinguish between minerals in food and minerals in rocks. I'm talking about minerals in rocks (made by nature).

Minerals in rocks are solid crystalline substances, such as quartz or table salt (the fancy term for salt is halite). While these minerals occur naturally, some minerals can cause harm to humans.

A great example is chrysotile. Chrysotile is a silicate mineral that belongs to the serpentine group within the Asbestos "family". It occurs naturally, is commonly associated with talcum, and grows as thin, soft, long fibers.

Image of sa fibrous chrysotile mineral from Brazil. Eurico Zimbres, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Image of a chrysotile mineral [2].

Fragments of these fibres can enter the air we breathe and can lead to harmful diseases of our raspitory systems, including lung cancer.

The chemical formula of chrysotile is Mg3Si2O5(OH)4. This means it is composed of the elements magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen. All elements that are, on their own, mostly harmless (depending on a few variables).

Unfortunately, there exists a false dichotomy that goes as follows:

"Chemical substances are bad. Natural substances are good."

Like what you're reading? Subscribe for more sophisticated content

the false dichotomy of nature vs. chemistry in a Venn diagram

That is not true and can't be true. It implies that these can't co-exist. That they're mutually exclusive. However, all natural substances inherently are chemical substances. Every matter that exists is chemical. Everything is composed of atoms and molecules. 


I wish there existed a type of goggles that let you see a human body as an ingenious accumulation of molecules, much like we can observe infrared radiation emitted from a human body with specific devices.


The fact that not everything that is natural is healthy is easily observable in nature. Some plants and fungi are not healthy for humans. Try to drink salt water and you'll be quick to realize that the naturally occuring water is not good for you in large quantities. Make a grass salad and your teeth will be grinded by the quartz that is contained within grass leaves (according to my mineralogy teachter). And diseases, viruses, and bacteria are just as natural as the next tree. I'm sure you can think of many more examples (the chrysotile is another one).

The appropriate, and respectful, terminology for "chemical" is "artificial" or "synthetical", when used in a context other than the natural sciences (e.g. beauty products, food industry).The figure shows two fully overlapping circles on the left side, illustrating the intrinsic relationship between nature and chemistry. The Venn diagram on the right side shows the intersection of natural and artificial/synthetical products that form naturally derived products.

This way, chemistry isn't unjustly demonized. In fact, chemistry deserves heaps of love, admiration and amazement.

We shouldn't be fooled by the marketing term "all natural". It's a word that sounds good, responsible, earthy, but that awakens feelings of false security and instills the notion that everything that is natural is good, and everything that is chemical isn't.

But that isn't accurate. First: this dichotomy is false. Second: Just as some natural substances are healthy and some "chemical" substances are harmful, some natural substances are harmful, and some synthetical, artificial substances are not.

In a sense, there needs to be a clearer distinction between the concepts nature, natural and artificial/synthetical – because even artificial/synthetical products consist of naturally occuring elements. So, what does natural even mean? [3]



Notes & sources

[1] Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, ἄσβεστος ( via Asbestos - Wikipedia

[2] Image of chrysotile: Chrysotile mineral, Brazil Eurico Zimbres, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

[3] This is food for thought. There exist clear definitions of what is artificial and what is natural, at least in the food industry. A clear distinction can't be made on the basis of chemical structure or element composition, but by the way the substance is produced. If it's synthesized in a lab, it is officially labeled "artificial/synthetical". [4+5]


[5] U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

What are your thoughts?

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

/* -- Responsive video embed -- */ .responsive-video { padding-bottom: 56.25%; /* for 16:9 ratio */ padding-top: 25px; position: relative; height: 0; } .responsive-video iframe, .responsive-video object, .responsive-video embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }