Mix-up alert! «Natron» baking soda, baking powder, washing soda

Mix-up alert! «Natron» baking soda, baking powder, washing soda

Livia Gamper
Zurich, on 20.04.2022
Translation: Katherine Martin

It started with a simple premise: «Seven ways you can use baking soda at home». What followed was a scientific paper on chemical compositions. And who am I to deprive you of that? Read at your own risk!

«To understand the different properties of «Natron» and «soda», you need to understand the fundamental acid-base behaviour of the carbonate», writes Professor Freisinger in response to my enquiry. All I’d wanted to know was what the difference was between baking soda or bicarbonate of soda («Natron» to the German-speaking world), baking powder, and washing soda (simply «soda» to German speakers). However, I haven’t the foggiest idea about the acid-base behaviour of carbonates.

So how did it even come to this? While researching an article on seven household uses for baking soda, it occurred to me that baking soda and washing soda are – at least in this country – never properly explained or described. At the same time, baking powder is often mentioned in the same context. Baking powder. What, pray tell, has baking powder got to do with baking soda and washing soda?

Baking soda
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6.65per piece for 3 units16.30/1l
Starwax Baking soda
the fabulous Natriumcarbonat
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8.–per piece for 3 units
Starwax the fabulous Natriumcarbonat
Baking soda (200 g)
Quantity discount
6.05per piece for 3 units37.–/1kg
Morga Baking soda (200 g)

My original plan was to briefly explain the differences between the three powders. How hard could it be? To do so, I sought the help of Professor Freisinger at the University of Zurich’s Department of Chemistry. In answer to my first e-mail, I received three pages covered in hand-written formulas.

So much for «how hard could it be?»

Formulas like these are incomprehensible – especially for someone like me, who’s far from being a chemistry boffin. And I certainly can’t get a handle on their internet explanations. So I dug a bit deeper and was rewarded with fascinating informational tidbits that I’d just hate to withhold from you.

If, on the other hand, you’re really only interested in the seven tips, you can find them in the article below.

  • Know-howHome

    Everything you can do with baking soda (spoiler: a lot)

A short but intense chemistry lesson

First, Professor Freisinger tells me what the difference is between baking soda and washing soda. The distinction is important – washing soda is the more aggressive of the two. She later compares the German speaker’s «soda» with baking powder and with the product known in English-speaking countries as baking soda. Careful though, an English speaker’s «baking soda» and a German speaker’s «soda» are not the same thing.

Yup, it’s really complicated.

Chemists refer to «Natron» as sodium hydrocarbonate or sodium bicarbonate. «Soda», on the other hand, is called sodium carbonate (so, without the «bi» in the middle). «Natron» has the chemical formula NaHCO₃, while «soda’s» is Na₂CO₃.

Freisinger explains that the difference between «Natron» (baking soda) and «soda» (washing soda) lies in the acidic-base behaviour of the carbonate. «If you mix baking soda with water, the hydrogencarbonate ions form a proton from the water and become carbonic acid. In other words, because of the instability of the carbonic acid, what’s formed is mostly carbon dioxide and water.» I briefly need to look this up. An ion is a charged atom or molecule, while protons are positively charged particles. My head is spinning. And it gets even worse. Freisinger sends me this handwritten equation:

The explanation? «The resulting OH is a base, which means the solution is slightly alkaline.» The phrase «slightly alkaline» refers to the pH value of the solution: the greater this is, the more alkaline the solution. The opposite of alkaline is acidic. That’ll be important again in a sec. First, though, another dizzying explanation from our chemistry professor. «Washing soda’s carbonate ion is similar to that of baking soda’s», she says, «it also forms a proton from water.» On top of this, there’s another equation:

According to Freisinger, there’s no subsequent reaction to the carbonic acid here because the solution is too alkaline. For lay people: it’s not acidic enough – aha! So, there we have it – the acid-base behaviour mentioned before. Freisinger goes on to say that a fair amount of HCO3 – and therefore, lots of OH is formed. This means that the solution becomes more strongly alkaline than is the case with baking soda.

Simply put, the entire statement above means that cleaning with washing soda, while more effective, is also riskier and more aggressive. The resulting base helps with cleaning because it makes fats water-soluble or «saponifies» them.

This makes it easy to remove burnt-on stains, for example. As it’s less dangerous, baking soda is used more frequently in the kitchen. It is, however, suitable for cleaning. Speaking of the kitchen, let’s move on to the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

Baking soda and baking powder aren’t the same thing

Freisinger explains that baking soda isn’t the same thing as baking powder. Although the material is similar, baking powder contains more ingredients. It is, after all, a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and acid. This in turn neutralises the resulting base. Or, to put it like an expert would: the acid ensures that all of the hydrogencarbonate is protonated to carbonic acid, which then breaks down into carbon dioxide – the leavening agent that makes dough rise so beautifully in the oven.

Once more for the people in the back:

«Natron» is the German-speaking world’s term for baking soda and is not to be confused with baking powder. In addition, what’s referred to as «soda» in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is not baking soda – it’s soda ash or washing soda. Kapeesh?

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Testing devices and gadgets is my thing. Some experiments lead to interesting insights, others to demolished phones. I’m hooked on series and can’t imagine life without Netflix. In summer, you’ll find me soaking up the sun by the lake or at a music festival.

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