Word of the Day: Organic

Organic seems to be the word of the decade, it seems. In common usage, it refers to a particular philosophy of food and natural fiber production, involving limiting processing of the product, favouring naturally-derived fertilisers and pesticides, and so on. The concept gives people the warm-and-fuzzies, so it’s also used a fair bit as a marketing device. Anyone with a bit of background in chemistry has probably had a good laugh — or a small fit of rage, either way — at “organic salt” and bottled “organic water”.

What’s the joke?

Well, to a scientist, especially a chemist, “organic” means “contains carbon.”

… okay, there are a small handful of specific exceptions to that: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, cyanides, carbides, and carbonate salts behave too differently to other carbon-containing chemicals, so they’re classified as inorganic, but anything else with carbon in its structure that you care to name is organic, from methane to DNA to ethanol to polystyrene.

Salt is sodium chloride — no carbon. Water is an oxygen atom with two hydrogen “mickey mouse ears” bonded to it. Not organic.

On the other hand, all food and fiber is made up of predominantly organic components. Or the interesting parts are, at least. Most food is mostly water, really.

So, if you’re a chemist, regadless of your stance on the organic food and fibre philosophy, the “organic” craze is quite a laugh.


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