Afternoon InquisitionScience

Sunday AI: Going Chemical Free

I try really hard not to be an annoying academic. I generally don’t chide people when they call a beetle a “bug,” for example.  But.

The trend to call things “Chemical Free” Must. Be. Stopped.

Chemical free! (not really)There are several different online projects documenting the spread of this term; my favorite is F No, “Chemical Free!”.

“Chemical free”, if you know anything about chemistry, is a meaningless marketing term.  Pretty much everything bigger than an electron is made of chemicals.  I am a huge lump of chemicals, typing on a laptop made of chemicals, sending my information to your chemicals for processing.

It is incredibly frustrating as an entomologist to see people talking about “chemical free pesticides.”  What is actually meant, I think, is non-toxic; but that isn’t always correct either, since many “organic” pesticides can be quite toxic.

It might mean “natural”, but there isn’t much difference between plant-derived and synthesized compounds, other than cost.  And you can kill yourself just as spectacularly with natural chemicals as synthetic ones.

How to deal with the ubiquity of “chemical free” slogans became a hot topic recently when some beers began to label themselves as chemical free. And one thing you do NOT do is fuck around with scientists’ beer.  We take that shit seriously.

The Royal Society of Chemistry offered a million pounds in 2008 for anyone who can produce a material that is 100% chemical free.  That wasn’t successful; they haven’t even been able to get the UK Advertising Standards Authority to require fertilizers or deodorants to drop the “chemical free” language on their packaging.

Words can have multiple meanings, and (some argue) this chemical-free horse has already left the barn, gone out the gate, and galloped into the next county.  Marketers and media are using the words “chemical-free” to meet a need to communicate something, and just hollering at them that their use of the words is meaningless isn’t going to change anything.

A chemist has started a project to ask:

“how do we go about re-branding/removing the term “chemical-free”? I think that one of the best ways to do this is by playing the marketing game ourselves. If chemists can come up with an alternate phrase that is as powerful AND also happens to be correct, we just may be able to phase out “chemical-free”.”

What do you think? What marketing phrase would you replace “chemical-free” with? Should the FTC get involved in regulating the packaging of  “chemical free” products, since it’s a false claim?



Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I demand the right to smash anyone who refers to any sort of baryonic matter as “chemical free” in the face with a chemical-free 2×4. After all, if it is an all-natural, organic 2×4, how can it possibly hurt them?

  2. How about “evil spirit-free”? That also has the advantage of being completely true.

    Or “Guaranteed Vampire-Free! by Skepchicks” with the image of the Skepchicks channeling Buffy while holding various implements of destruction, a wooden stake, a copy of The God Delusion, a light saber, and a jack-in-the-box of a clown.

    “Produced in a facility that is guaranteed to be evil spirit-free, demon-free, ghost-free, vampire-free and thetan-free.”

  3. I think the best approach is to demand that items actually be chemical free. Try it! “I want this bread to be made of pure energy” or “Give me cereal consisting entirely of electrons”.

    I hate to say it, but like “organic” and “natural” this one has moved into the general language and is not going away.

  4. If alternative medicine can be medicine-free then I see no reason why a chemistry set can’t be chemical-free.

    Get with the times!

  5. I’ve got it! Educate the masses. If everyone understood what a chemical was (and wasn’t) the marketers would have to resort to meaningful phrases instead of relying on the vapid, misleading one so commonly used today. We could start with “chemical,” then move on to “organic,” and if we have time before the end of the millennium end and are feeling particularly bold end with “natural.” Who’s in?

    1. Yeah,I was wondering about that when I wrote my “baryonic matter” rant, but I decided being properly scientific and precise in my language was too much like work and it seemed more snarky/funny to engage in the same imprecision we are complaining about. … Also, are Helium and other inert gases technically chemicals, since they don’t actually engage in chemical reactions?

  6. We may be approaching this from the wrong angle. How about celebrating the chemicalness of things? Instead of “Chemical Free” let’s make “Choc full of Chemicals” the advertising slogan of choice.
    “Drink Chemi-Cola, Now with Even More Chemicals Than Ever.” or
    “Try New Chemo-flakes, Delicious Chunks of Corn crammed with so many chemicals you need a PHD just to understand the label – and that’s before you’ve added the pastuerised, non-organic milk.”
    The future of advertising starts here.

  7. Legislation is never going to catch up to marketers, by the time you get them to change one label, they will already have another buzz word. Oh natural is stupid and meaningless, don’t worry it is now labelled organic.
    It is far more effective to teach consumers basic marketing and advertising tactics. It would be good to teach children this, but until then we have George Carlin George Carlin on Advertising and Marketing.

  8. Put ridiculing “chemical free” on the elementary school syllabus. What kid doesn’t like making fun of stuff? What kid couldn’t grasp that chemical is just the chemical name for “stuff”?

  9. What? These people are ridiculous — if anything, kids are going to want to play with this stuff even more if they KNOW there are ‘chemicals’ (ooh, scary!) inside. A kid probably couldn’t care less about a magnifying glass on its own until you tell him/her you can light things on fire with it, I don’t see how this is much different.

    1. You can’t make actual, specific health claims about products, unless they are backed by evidence and data and experiments and other annoying, sciency stuff. It would be totally unfair to force manufacturers to spend 1% of their advertising budget to actually prove their claims.

      1. Buzz,

        If that were true we wouldn’t have a supplement industry. You can claim ANYTHING is healthy or good for you unless it is a drug.

        1. Yeah, you’re correct. I was thinking of specific claims like “cures nose warts in penguins” or “prevents diabetes”, but “Healthy” and “good for you” fall under the vagueness exemption that allows supplements and homeopathy products to be sold. I think in fact that the very definition of a drug depends on what claims you make for it, rather than what it actually is or does. So you can say some homeopathic 30C bacon promotes heart health, but you can’t claim it is a useful treatment for severe dehydration unless you actually test it.

  10. Chemical BAD!
    Natural GOOD!

    This is advertising we are talking about. Any words that can cause visceral or warm and fuzzy reactions in people will always be used as much as possible, regardless of how well they reflect what is actually going on.

    The goal is making people buy stuff, not making them think about anything.

  11. Is “chemical-free” the opposite of “natural”? Because, surely, any product mad of stuff that is chemical-free must also be 100% supernatural.

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