Organic chemicals are molecules that contain the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. Not all organic molecules need to have all six of these elements, but they have to have at least carbon and hydrogen. Organic chemicals make up common substances found in the home. Olive oil that is used for cooking is an organic chemical. So is the alcohol ethanol, which is found in hand sanitizers and wine. Chefs add a chemical called MSG to their food to make it taste better. Sugar is an organic molecule. So is the caffeine in coffee that makes people alert.
Cooking oil such as olive oil and corn oil are organic molecules known as fatty acids. Fatty acids are long chains of carbon atoms that can be 10 to 30 carbons long. The carbon atom at one end is attached to oxygen atoms, but the rest of the carbon atoms in the chain are attached to hydrogen atoms. Olive oil is a liquid at room temperature because its chain has a kink in the middle, which causes the molecule to bend like an L shape. If it were straight, it would be a solid at room temperature, much like butter.
Ethanol is a common alcohol found in the home. It is the alcohol inside beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. It is made up of two carbon atoms, one oxygen atom and six hydrogen atoms. Alcohol evaporates easily at room temperature, which is why you can smell alcohol once the bottle is open. At high concentrations, ethanol is a disinfectant that kills bacteria. It is often used as a hand sanitizer when mixed with water to make a solution that is 70 percent ethanol and 30 percent water.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an organic compound that is added to food to enhance flavor. It is often used in Chinese food, but is also found in canned vegetables and canned soups. There is some concern that MSG may cause health problems, such as headaches, nausea and abnormal heart activity, but research has not found definite proof that this is the case. MSG is made of the amino acid glutamate and sodium salt. Amino acids are the building blocks that cells use to make proteins.
Sugar With Your Coffee?
Coffee is a favorite beverage of many people, since it has a chemical that wakes them up and makes them alert. This chemical is called caffeine. The shape of caffeine is two polygonal rings that share a side. One is a six-cornered hexagon and the other is a five-cornered pentagon. The corners are either carbon or nitrogen atoms. Table sugar, which is called sucrose, is often added to coffee as a sweetener. Sucrose is an organic molecule that is actually made of two smaller sugars that were joined together, glucose and fructose.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Organic Compounds
- Live Science: The Chemistry of Life
- Elmhurst College Chembook: Fatty Acids
- BBC Bitesize: Ethanol
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities, 2008
- Mayo Clinic: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – Is It Harmful?
- ChemSpider: Monosodium Glutamate
- PubChem: Caffeine
- Elmhurst College Chembook: Sucrose
About the Author
David H. Nguyen holds a PhD and is a cancer biologist and science writer. His specialty is tumor biology. He also has a strong interest in the deep intersections between social injustice and cancer health disparities, which particularly affect ethnic minorities and enslaved peoples. He is author of the Kindle eBook "Tips of Surviving Graduate & Professional School."