Is ‘Chemical-Free’ Nonsense?

Back in 2008 the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) ruled that an advertisement for an organic fertilizer  claiming to be “100% chemical free” was not misleading because:

“When there is a colloquial understanding of a word, we can take this into account when reaching our decision. In this case, we believe that most viewers are likely to understand the term ‘organic’ as meaning no man-made chemicals have been used to manufacture, or are present in this product. For this reason, we believe that most viewers are unlikely to be misled by the claim.”

To many this seemed like a largely illogical statement, including the Royal Society of Chemsitry. Their  response  was to offer a £1 million bounty for anyone who could present them with a truly 100% chemical free material.

Five years later and needless to say  the RSC has not had to cough up. Meanwhile the term ‘chemical-free’ is still being banded about (including articles in mainstream media(chached page) , eliciting periodic complaints and some highly amusing satire  from bloggers (and not just the chemistry crowd, a Mum’s blogs have joined in as well). In short not much has changed.

I figured it might be time to see if the ASA might reconsider it’s position. And a brand of ‘chemical-free’ deodorant that’s stocked in Holland and Barrett (a health food shop in the UK) seemed like the perfect test bed. I completed the ASA complaints form, making all the usual points about how it can’t possibly be chemical free, and this is the response I got.

While we appreciate your point that all material consists of chemicals, there do not appear to be grounds to suppose that this means that consumers will be misled by the claims in this ad.  We note that the claim is qualified by a list of ingredients next to the product description.  We consider that consumers are likely to generally interpret claims such as this in the practical sense that no synthetic chemicals, as opposed to the organic constituents of the product, have been added to the product rather than in the literal sense that the product includes no chemicals whatsoever.

On this basis we are satisfied that consumers are unlikely to be misled to their detriment by this ad and that the advertisers are not in breach of our Code on this occasion.

So pretty much the same stance they took 5 years ago, which does rather grate. But does it really matter? Maybe the consumer does understand that “chemical-free” is nonsense and  I should stop getting irritated by it.  The comments in the Smartmama.com blog seem to back this up: The general feeling seems to be  an understanding that shampoo etc.  can’t be ‘chemical-free’ , combined with annoyance at products that use the term. One particular comment sums it up nicely..

Could anyone be more contemptuous of the public’s intellect than people marketing “chemical free” products?

Seems like “chemical-free” marketing might be backfiring. Let’s hope so.

 

 

14 Comments

  1. If your argument boils down to one of semantics you can’t expect to win much sympathy. “Chemical-free” is a very succinct way of expressing that their product is unlikely to contain unexpected harmful byproducts of some relatively new process. Nobody knows what the next bisphenol-A is going to be. As a chemist, I’m more worried about getting hit by lightning, but there are people out there who feel the need to remain kosher and unsullied with regard to the wares of process chemistry. I can’t dismiss that attitude offhand on the grounds that “glucose is a chemical too”

    There have been a great many toxic and malicious substances introduced to the unwitting general public by the breakthroughs of science. You can’t equate synthetic chemicals with the ones we consume in their naturally occurring abundances

    Is “chem-free” ignorant? yes, but you won’t supplant it with equally blind trust. The debate is going to have to be over where process chem has failed the consumer in the past, how that will be prevented in the future, and what we know about the synthetic chemicals we’re consuming now

    • Is separating “natural chemicals” and “unnatural chemicals” that easy, though? “Natural” vs. “unnatural” is a blurry line to begin with and it’s even more blurry than when you’re talking about something formed by chemical reactions. Most chemicals are simply discovered, not invented (though there are exceptions).

      Monosodium glutmate and caffeine are often get listed as “unnatural chemicals.” But monosodium glutamate is a crystallized version of Glutamic acid, a substance which is present in everything from green tea to human milk; caffeine is actually occurs naturally in a lot of plants, including cacao beans, tea leaves, and coffee beans. That doesn’t automatically make either of those things good, but it doesn’t make them automatically bad, either.

    • neither is this says:

      the real problem here is that it makes it impossible for me to explain my grandmother that the 100% chemical free shampoo she buys for twice the price of a regular one is neither chemical free or natural and a chemical is not something that causes cancer and kills you. it makes it impossible to explain my friend that there is no difference between LSD made in laboratory or extracted from ergot and everytime we talk about that subject he uses the fact that ergot is natural source as an argument for it to be a better source for LSD together with the usual ” dude thats full of chemicals”.

      the problem here is that the industrie takes advantage of people’s ignorance while trying to disconnect their products from the chemical industrie (wich is kind of ironic) and they ruin the reputation of chemistry to the consumer’s eye. you, as someone who clearly enjoys science and chemistry, should understand its not just a matter of semantics when it comes to brainwash people with pseudo-science.

  2. Fair points. But they do presuppose that there is something intrinsically safer about natural chemicals as compared to synthetics. And I’m not convinced that this is the case, in fact its a dangerous misconception.

  3. Hey Mark, Great post! It’s interesting to see what the ASA wrote in response to your “complaint”. Personally, I think they’re wrong and just trying to make you a happy consumer with their response (or covering up their own tracks)! Of course they’re misleading the average consumer! It’s because of companies like them that so many consumers think that all chemicals are! Of course there are some awful chemicals out there, but it’s important that most people appreciate and respect what chemicals are, which is everything! Anyways, I was going to point you to a post I had written about this: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/03/08/chemical-is-not-a-bad-word/
    then I noticed your last comment above about natural chemicals- and guess what I wrote something about that too! http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/04/10/natural-vs-synthetic-chemicals-is-a-gray-matter/
    I hope you don’t mind me plugging those here. I think it’s great that you’re writing about this topic!

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  6. While we appreciate your point that all material consists of chemicals, there do not appear to be grounds to suppose that this means that consumers will be misled by the claims in this ad. We note that the claim is qualified by a list of ingredients next to the product description. We consider that consumers are likely to generally interpret claims such as this in the practical sense that no synthetic chemicals, as opposed to the organic constituents of the product, have been added to the product rather than in the literal sense that the product includes no chemicals whatsoever.

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