(This first appeared on my other blog, Mountain Plover.)
I was at the market picking out some grapes when a large woman ran up to me and grabbed my arm. “Don’t buy those!” She looked alarmed. “They’re not organic!”
Thankfully, I’m rarely accosted in the produce department , but I frequently hear the same lecture from many of my friends. Don’t take man-made drugs. Don’t use artificial sweeteners. Don’t eat food that isn’t organic. You’re poisoning yourself. Natural is safe. Everything else isn’t.
I should point out that I have no desire to poison myself with dangerous chemicals, but our concern about the difference between “natural” and “manmade” chemicals is irrelevant. Both laboratories and nature produce those that are safe and others that are not-so-safe. Arsenic is natural. Vitamin C can be replicated in a laboratory.
Organic is popular. We eat organic food. We wear organic cotton. Even our household cleaners are organic. Organic is supposed to be good for us and good for the environment. But what does organic mean? Is it really always better?
To the dictionary, organic means “of, relating to, or derived from living matter.” So you and I are organic. The cement sidewalk is not. All the food in my fridge is organic. The refrigerator itself is not.
To a chemist, an organic molecule is “the kind normally found in living systems.” Organic molecules usually include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. These atoms can be strung together into long chains or arranged into rings. Starches and proteins are organic molecules. Salt is not.
What do Minute Maid® or Ocean Spray® ruby red grapefruit juice, Revolutionary War British soldier uniforms, and Almay lipstick have in common? Yes, they’re all red. But there’s more to it than that. They, along with a myriad of other cosmetics, foods, and a few fabrics, all contain a red dye known as cochineal red or its derivative, carmine.
Almost everything these days contains some sort of artificial color. Some people avoid these dyes, while most don’t think twice even if they do happen to read the label. Even better, cochineal isn’t artificial. It’s a natural product that has been used for hundreds of years.
So just what is it, and where does it come from?