Chemistry is everything - it also protects against natural poisoning
Professor Nuno Maulide is Director of the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Vienna. The Portuguese-born professor talks about misunderstood chemistry in an interview with Visao, a Portuguese news magazine. Here is a translation in an abridged version.
Friday, November 12, 2021
What do you think when you hear "chemical-free product"?
That is an uninformed statement. There is nothing that is free of chemicals. Even the air we breathe consists only of chemicals: molecular nitrogen and oxygen. It is necessary to debunk this misinformation about chemical-free food, chemical-free clothing, etc. There is no chemical compound that is good or bad. It all depends on how we use them. Try drinking more than four litres of water in an hour (or better: don't try, because it's dangerous!). There is a maximum amount of water you can drink per hour.
Is plastic trash?
The invention of plastic is probably the greatest scientific discovery in 20th century chemistry. The fact that we humans don't make the best use of plastic is another story. To say that the molecules that make up plastic are bad molecules, I don't accept that. Another example: Nitroglycerin, which people like to associate with dangerous explosives. Nitroglycerin is used in medicine in small doses to control the heart rate.
Let's move on to the subject of food. In your book [Como Se Transforma Ar em Pão, Engl: How to Turn Air into Bread] you describe what you eat for breakfast when you are in a hurry: Water, sugar, some protein and fat, esters, aldehydes, alcohols, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and chlorine.
Yes, that's right, it's an apple. Even if we do a detailed chemical analysis of a banana, we find hundreds of micro-components, all chemical compounds with names that scare everyone. That's how our world works. For example, people are very afraid of all the "E "s [known as food additives] in products. But a banana has more than a dozen "E "s. Even vitamin C, which does us so much good, is an E (E300). The obsession with organic food (a very poorly chosen name) has its dangers. There are certain pests, weeds and diseases that, if not controlled by the "evil" pesticides and herbicides, poison the food.
What are you currently working on?
Two examples: In addition to the well-known sweets, menthol is also contained in many cosmetics and has a cooling effect. It can be extracted from mint leaves, but that only covers 50 % of the world's demand. Everything else is produced synthetically, also for reasons of sustainability. The biggest menthol companies in the world use a process that requires the use of heavy metals and requires two steps in the final stage. We have discovered a reaction that allows us to carry out this last phase in one step and without heavy metals. The process is currently being optimised and studied in detail. Another example is the lupine. The lupine is a small, dry seed that swells with cooking water, but is bitter and only develops its flavour after a few washes. One of the organic compounds responsible for this bitter taste can be extracted by washing. We discovered that after extraction and a chemical reaction, it can be converted into another compound that sells for 100 euros per gram. We patented the process and together with an old classmate I founded a company that researches this process.
The reduced use of plant protection products is causing much smaller wheat and rapeseed harvests. A study carried out by Swiss Agricultural Research reveals that such crop failures can only be offset by state subsidies. This is neither sustainable nor resource-efficient.
The economic interdependence of the world has increased greatly over the past years and decades. Due to the brisk trade activity between the continents, invasive plant and animal species are also spreading faster and faster. This can lead to serious problems for native vegetation and agriculture. According to the FOEN, the canton of Ticino is particularly affected.
Invasive pests and plant diseases are among the greatest challenges for biodiversity and agriculture. They often enter Switzerland via travel and imported goods and cause great damage to cultivated and wild plants. Since 2020, the import of plants from non-EU countries is prohibited. However, introduced pests are a worldwide problem.
The Japanese beetle was first discovered in Switzerland in 2017 in Ticino. Now it has made it to the northern side of the Alps. After being found in Basel-Stadt and Solothurn, a larger population of the beetles has been found in Kloten for the first time. They are controlled with traps, but also pesticides.