Plants or Petroleum: The ‘Natural’ Difference Isn’t Clear

The Wall Street Journal: “Many retailers and consumer products companies classify their products as natural if some of their ingredients were originally sourced from plant-based materials. But the top ingredients in many natural or ‘green’ consumer goods aren’t that different from mainstream products, whose ingredients often come from petroleum-based sources … The main ingredients in Tom’s of Maine Simply White toothpaste, for instance—including sodium fluoride, hydrated silica, sorbitol and sodium lauryl sulfate—are also in some types of Colgate toothpaste. Tom’s of Maine, which says all its ingredients ‘originate from nature,’ is owned by Colgate-Palmolive Co.”

“Whole Foods Markets Inc. last fall started selling a new brand of laundry detergent called Nature’s Power, whose green bottle claims the product is made ‘with plant-derived soaps.’ Its top active ingredient, a commonly used cleaning agent called sodium laureth sulfate, is found in plenty of its mainstream peers, including Arm & Hammer, which like Nature’s Power is made by Church & Dwight Co. Sodium laureth sulfate can be produced from coconut oil, palm oil or petroleum. ‘It is the same chemical compound, regardless of what it’s derived from,’ says Clarence Miller, a professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University in Houston.”

“While the Food and Drug Administration regulates foods and personal-care products and requires detailed ingredient labeling, it isn’t clear who is checking the labels of household products or the contents of bottles … The use of term “organic” is more closely regulated. Makers of household cleaners that label their products organic must have their ingredients certified by an independent body that follows guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”


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