Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Carbon 14 and health

  1. Aug 28, 2010 #1
    Many people believe that plant-derived compounds are healthier than their "identical" artifical petrochemical counterparts. The only difference however is the amount of carbon-14 (more carbon 14 compounds from plant-dervied sources). So if anything, in this regard, wouldn't the artifical compounds be safer having less radioactive carbon-14? I say this in terms of the logic they use, to my knowledge those levels of carbon-14 are not a threat anyway.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2010 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    14C only exists in trace amounts even to begin with, and has a very long half-life. You could do the math as an exercise if you like, but I'm overwhelmingly certain that 14C decay are completely negligible in comparison to the rest of the background radiation around us.

    That said, artificial compounds are safer for a much simpler reason. Natural substances are typically impure. To pick an example, vanilla extract probably has hundreds if not thousands of compounds in it, whereas synthesized vanillin is a pure chemical. And it's safe; every compound in synthetic food additives are tested for safety, which is not the case for natural foodstuffs. (If they did, we all know that every single food out there would be found to contain plenty of "harmful chemicals". It's just that people don't think about stuff that way).

    As any chemist knows, it's all just irrational prejudice, largely created by marketing. People associate 'chemical' with something dangerous and toxic, even though everything is a 'chemical'. They associate 'synthetic' and 'artificial' with the idea of inferior quality, although the concept of 'quality' has no meaning if you're comparing molecules. And marketing drums into people that 'natural' is something good, even though almost everything could be termed 'natural', including most of the most dangerous toxins known to man.

    Of course in my particular example, natural vanilla is better, because a lot of those compounds contribute to the flavor. I think much of the above associations come from the singular product category of artificial flavors, since that's the one area where the chemically-synthesized product usually really is both cheaper and inferior.
  4. Aug 28, 2010 #3
    I think this is a highly important area that I'd like to learn more about. I always had a problem with the argument some people make that anything that is natural is harmless (this argument even gets used for marijuana). It is so ingrained in society though that people view natural as good, as you said, that it is nearly impossible to convince most people otherwise. There are a few arguments that I've heard though that are intriguing. The first is that fruits and vegetables include phytochemicals important to health that you do not get from artificial foods/supplements. The second is that even if the compounds are the same themselves, that natural foods are better because of the delivery system (e.g., vitamins and minerals are better absorbed when ingested through food....perhaps due to the fiber or some other component not in the supplement).
  5. Aug 28, 2010 #4


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Sure, tell them to eat some castor bean seeds. Or deadly nightshade fruits. Or water hemlock root. Or oleander. You will not have to argue with them ever again.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook