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The Chemical Names of Common Everyday Substances

Updated on August 10, 2014
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Melvin is an avid reader and a retired chemist after working for a major pharmaceutical company for 32 years.

The Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide Hoax. The IUPAC name of water used the wrong way.
The Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide Hoax. The IUPAC name of water used the wrong way.

Introduction

I recently read an article from a website I stumbled upon by accident. The website was loaded with facts about a chemical called “Dihydrogen Monoxide” . The facts were basically stating how dangerous this chemical is to us and how prevalent it is in our environment. It turn out that this dangerous sounding name is water. This is the IUPAC or International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry name for water. This name for water is based on rules setup by the IUPAC organization for naming chemicals. The idea of dihydrogen monoxide being a dangerous substance was first perpetrated as an internet hoax by students at the University of California in the 1990s and to this day many people still do not know that dihydrogen monoxide is just water unless they were chemistry majors in college. Hoaxes of this nature often scare the general public because they do not know the IUPAC name of common everyday chemicals. I do not want to illustrate here how scientifically illiterate some people are but to bring to your attention that just because some chemicals have a long and dangerous sounding IUPAC name to them are basically harmless to us in most cases. Here are a few familiar substances to illustrate this point.


Deoxyribonucleic Acid

For instance, deoxyribonucleic acid, sounds dangerous does it? It is DNA spelled out. It also has a IUPAC name like other chemicals out there, but it would be too long to print in its entirety here. This chemical makes virtually all life possible on this planet and possibly elsewhere in the universe. Without it life would be impossible as we understand it because this is the chemical responsible for the transfer of genetic information from parents to offsprings. A typical nonscientific person would assume that this is a corrosive chemical because it has the word "acid" in its name. It is an acid but it is a weak acid so that makes it the non-corrosive kind.


The chemical of life.
The chemical of life.
The molecular structure of this common everyday chemical, ascorbic acid
The molecular structure of this common everyday chemical, ascorbic acid
Furan, the parent molecule of ascorbic acid, This is a highly volatile and flammable chemical.
Furan, the parent molecule of ascorbic acid, This is a highly volatile and flammable chemical.

Ascorbic Acid aka Vitamin C

Almost everyday in the world someone consumes vitamin C either as pills or eats oranges at some point during the day. Vitamin C is one form of ascorbic acid, a naturally occurring organic compound that is a very important part of our diet. If you saw the IUPAC name of this common chemical you probably will have second thoughts about eating another orange which is (5R)-[(1S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one. The name basically tells a chemist the locations of the chemical groups and how many of the chemical groups are on the parent molecule. For example, the 3,4-dihydroxyfuran tells the chemist that there are two hydroxy or -OH groups at positions 3 and 4 on the five-sided ring called furan. The ring is the parent molecule where you can make other chemicals simply by changing the position of the groups attached to the ring or by substituting different chemical groups in place of those already attached to the ring. However, if you removed all the groups attached to the ring, the ring alone is an extremely flammable liquid. It boils almost at room temperature.


The molecular structure of cinnamaldehyde.
The molecular structure of cinnamaldehyde.

Cinnamon

You heard about this one a lot on the internet lately. Cinnamon is a naturally occurring organic chemical found in the bark of cinnamon trees used as a flavorant. The chemical name is trans-cinnamaldehyde. Its IUPAC name is (2E)-3-phenylprop-2-enal. This chemical is in a class of compounds that exhibits antimicrobial properties. Another familiar compound formaldehyde is also in this class of compounds. It is used as a preservative for animal tissue and as a component in embalming solution for the same reason. Cinnamon’s antimicrobial properties make it one of the most popular ingredient in mouthwash and it was first used in toothpaste as early as the 1780s.


The molecular structure of isoamyl acetate, the chemical responsible for the order and flavor banana.
The molecular structure of isoamyl acetate, the chemical responsible for the order and flavor banana.

Banana

The chemical responsible for the flavor of banana is isoamyl acetate. The IUPAC name for this flavor is 3-methylbut-1-yl ethanoate. It is also responsible for the flavor of another fruit, the pear. Most organic acetates has a fruity smell and are responsible for the flavor of other fruits. One very interesting use of this chemical in nature is when honey bees stings unwanted guests near their honeycomb. The stinging bee releases isoamyl acetate from it stinger as a phermone to attract more bees and provoke them to sting the intruder. This explains why there are so many bees around fallen pears. They are collecting this chemical from pears for defensive purposes.


Molecular structure of theobromine.
Molecular structure of theobromine.

Chocolate

The main ingredient in cocoa used to produce chocolate is theobromine. Despite the name, bromine is not in this chemical. However, bromine is a poisonous gas up there with chlorine in the halogen family of the periodic table. Nonetheless, the IUPAC name for theobromine is 3,7-dimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione; which sounds even worst. Occasional consumption of chocolate is considered to be healthy for us, but consuming large amounts of it can cause theobromine poisoning, especially in the elderly. Fortunately, this does not happens that often because there is a small amount of theobromine in processed chocolate. Domestic animals like dogs should not consume too much chocolate since their digestive system metabolizes it much slower than humans. Beware dog owners! They are the most common victim of theobromine poisoning and it can be fatal if the condition is not treated in time by a vet.


Molecular structure of vanillin.
Molecular structure of vanillin.

Vanilla Flavor

Vanillin is a natural occurring organic chemical used as a flavorant in many food products and is the principle component in vanilla extract. This one really has a terrible sounding name using the IUPAC nomenclature rules. The IUPAC name for vanilla is 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. It falls in the same class of compounds (aldehyde) as the previously mentioned cinnamon. Unfortunately, for some migraine suffers vanillin can trigger migraine and some people are allergic to it.


Molecular structure of caffeine
Molecular structure of caffeine

Caffeine

Everyone is familiar with this one. Caffeine can be found in many common everyday products such as coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, pain-relievers, and even in energy drinks such as Fruit 2O. Basically, manufacturers have added caffeine to almost any edible or drinkable product with the word “energy” printed on its label. It is the most used psychoactive drug in the world since it is consume by a very large population. The IUPAC name for caffeine is 3,7-Dihydro-1,3,7-trimethyl-1H-purine-2,6-dione. This is what people are drinking everyday, a long named chemical. Furthermore, this chemical is in the same class of compounds as theobromine, previously mentioned, found in chocolate. Theobromine is also a psychoactive chemical and its IUPAC name is very similar to caffeine. Unfortunately, caffeine has the same effect on animals just as chocolate does. Caffeine is toxic to many animals, especially dogs since their system metabolizes or breaks down the chemical a lot slower than humans. Again, be carefully with coffee and sodas around them.


Conclusion

As you can see, everyday products we take for granted have long, dangerous, sounding name to them. But in most cases they are harmless to us if consumed in moderation. So, the next time you see something in the media with a long and dangerous sounding name to it do not fret it may only be another name like; 2,5-Dimethyl-4-methoxy-2H-furan-3-one, which is one of the ingredients responsible for the flavor of strawberry.

© 2013 Melvin Porter

Comments

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    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      4 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Thanks FlourishAnyway. Yep, water is a chemical like everything else in the world. Water is a "good" chemical for us since all life here depends on it in one form or another to survive. However, water can become poisonous to us if you drink too much of it in a relative short period of time. The potency of water to do harm to us is much lower than the potency of snake venom to do harm to us and that is why we are able to drink so much of it without getting into trouble. Snake venom is a different story, just one drop will do harm to us.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      4 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Danida and Sujaya, thanks for your comments and for reading my hubs

    • sujaya venkatesh profile image

      sujaya venkatesh 

      4 years ago

      h2o mel

    • Danida profile image

      Danida 

      4 years ago from London

      These are pretty interesting! I remember the Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax! I used it a lot on people after hearing about it, haha! It certainly sounds dangerous, but everything in this world does by its scientific name.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 years ago from USA

      This was most fascinating, Melvin. My husband and brother are chemical engineers so sometimes I hear odd comments about "but water IS a chemical." My husband constantly tells me that he "creates a better life through chemistry." I loved learning about the different substances here in this hub and how they have been used throughout history. Voted up and more, plus shared.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      4 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Susi10, thanks for your comment and for reading my hub. This is just the kind of misinformation that is often being spread around all over the internet for people who are unscientifically inclined to understand this. The vast majority of the people fail to understand that everything in the universe is either an element or compound, albeit, a chemical, and that most of these chemicals are basically harmless and are essential for life as we understand it. The fact is some chemicals have dual personalities. For instance, nitroglycerine is a deadly explosive on one hand and on the other hand, in a different form it is a life saver for people who suffer from angina. This is one of many chemicals that have multiple personalities. They can either be harmless to us or beneficial to us.

    • susi10 profile image

      Susan W 

      4 years ago from The British Isles, Europe

      Wow, this hub amazed me. I knew a lot of the names...but “Dihydrogen Monoxide”? That is absolutely outrageous name for water, I still cannot believe it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this hub, it is fascinating to note that some chemicals are less reactive than what you would expect. Voted up +++, shared and useful.

    • profile image

      biochemi 

      4 years ago

      Yes of course!!! Thank you melpor!!!

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      4 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Biochemi, thanks for reading my hub. There are compounds that contain a ketone group that also have a fruity aroma in general .

    • profile image

      biochemi 

      4 years ago

      The common thing is that ether bond and ester bonds are responsible for the sweet fragrance of organic compounds..

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