Note: This is my contribution to the "Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals" blog carnival organized over at Sciencegeist.
|Amanita muscaria: Naturally |
photo: Pato Novoa
With the exception, apparently, of some Dow-manufactured products, everything is a chemical, from the water you drink to the air you breathe. "Organic" (itself another bone of contention between chemists and non-chemists) or natural also doesn't mean better. Certainly no one would argue that ricin, one of the most toxic compounds known to man, is "better" than aspartame simply because it's a natural product.
On the other hand, synthetic is not always better, either. Organic farming practices have been proven to produce vegetables with higher nutritional content than those grown with chemical fertilizers and pest control; the tradeoff has always been considered to be a reduced yield per acre. Recently, however, long term studies have suggested this is not the case.
|Get it? Close to my heart. Ha!|
Chemical toxicity is generally expressed as LD50; simply, the dose of a substance required to kill 50% of a test population. In rats, the LD50 for water is around 90 milliliters per kilogram of body weight; capsaicin's LD50 is 47.2 milligrams per kilogram. To make that a little more clear, the average American male weight approximately 87 kilograms, and naga jolokia chili contains at most about 62000 mg/kg capsaicin. This means one would need to eat about 70 grams of naga to die, or about 60 dried pods (very approximate numbers used here). That is, if you could keep them down; as far as I can tell, there has never been a documented death from capsaicin overdose, from chilis or otherwise. Note: The two gallons of water you might be tempted to drink after attempting such a feat would likely kill you if the peppers didn't.
So why do I love capsaicin so? For one, capsaicin stimulates the release of adrenaline. For starters, unlike many folks, I love the intense feeling of heat, racing heart, and mild dizziness--eating entire chilis is like taking a drug (not that I would know anything about that). So very many of my favorite foods would be bland, boring dishes without this wonderful molecule. Imagine Mexican or Thai food without the heat. Boring.
|In ur garden, synthesizin' ur cancer medz|
photo by woodleywonderworks
There are myriad other uses; in the garden spray hot pepper wax to keep away pesky rodentsand deer (it won't keep birds away, they don't respond to it, and are the primary way pepper seeds are dispersed). Police and military forces us capsaicin--from chili peppers--for less-lethal force applications (India announced they would be using naga jolokia for this purpose).
An old saw is that the dose makes the poison, and it is certainly the case with capsaicin and many other compounds. The mainstream press would do well to keep this in mind--maybe hire some editors with a science background to at least check facts before rushing to press with another article screaming chemophobia. The science press (and twittersphere, blogosphere, etc.) would do well to keep in mind that not everyone has as deep an understanding of chemistry as they do, and attempt to educate without mocking. Remember: natural is not always good, and synthetic is not always better.