Saturday 24 August 2013

Natural: Not a Synonym for Healthy

More and more I hear and see the word natural used to market products under the premise that natural things are good for you. Why should people equate natural with healthy? There are a plethora of things that occur naturally and are harmful to us. Asbestos; harmful elements like mercuryleadarsenic, and radon; plus poisons like amatoxinbotulinum toxintetrodotoxinricintetanospasmintaicatoxin, and PhTx3 can all be found in nature. Furthermore, how much of our food is truly natural? Even the most basic foods we eat are unnatural. We've hybridized nature's wild fruits, vegetables, and grasses to create nearly all modern crops, artificially increasing yields, edibility, and nutritional value. We've taken nature's wild animals and bred them selectively to artificially make them dumber, more docile, more productive, and meatier. When wild animals see the bountiful feasts we've created for ourselves, they are enticed to take it for themselves. After all, what creature wouldn't want to exploit a new food source which is both plentiful and nutritious? So we have to fight back against birds, rodents, insects, and other natural invaders to preserve our artificially enhanced food sources. Without our intervention, all of the crops and domesticated animals of our creation would disappear. 
Given the opportunity, this robin and his pals will gorge themselves on orchard cherries.
It's difficult to make the argument that we were better off before we started artificially enhancing the human environment. We are smarter, larger, healthier, more comfortable, and have greater longevity than ever before. I doubt that very many of the people buying into the "all-natural" trend would agree that we'd all be better off if we stopped adding Vitamins A & D to milk, iodine to salt, and folic acid to flour. 
Flour fortified with folic acid helps prevent Spina Bifida, much to the chagrin of today's all-naturally fed mothers.
Perhaps instead of letting the latest trend decide for us what is and isn't healthy, we should trust scientific evidence and the people qualified to interpret that evidence. Certified organic food isn't healthier than the regular stuff. There's no significant difference between milk produced by dairy cows and milk produced by dairy cows on the growth hormone rBST. High-fructose corn syrup doesn't hinder weight loss or cause weight gain (consuming too many calories does). 

Even worse than the use of the word natural to market overpriced foods is its use to market herbal supplements. Sure, we've been using some herbal remedies for thousands of years. The efficacy of some natural remedies, like willow bark, is well established and led to improvements in modern medicine.
Powdered willow bark might work, but I'm not convinced it's better for me than Aspirin.
Many other remedies, however, haven't been subjected to the same scientific scrutiny. Herbal supplements don't need to be effective and they don't need to be approved by a regulating body before hitting the market. Health Canada basically only requires that the ingredients of an herbal supplement be labelled correctly and that the stuff doesn't pose a significant health risk if taken as directed. The U.S. FDA has essentially the same relaxed rules. While many supplements are probably harmless, there are a few that could be dangerous. St. John's Wort might help with mild depression, but there isn't enough evidence to use it to treat major depression and it isn't more effective or significantly better tolerated than other antidepressants. Plus, it interacts with a number of different drugs, including oral contraceptives. Comfrey helps heal damaged skin and bone, but its toxic effects on the liver resulted in the FDA banning comfrey preparations intended for ingestion. Kava might help with your anxiety, but it often takes several weeks to start working, and some possible adverse effects include liver damage and dangerous interactions with alcohol and other drugs. Those are just three examples of supplements that have received enough attention to identify some of the risks. There are hundreds of untested, barely regulated supplements out there being marketed with unsubstantiated claims of significant health benefits, and new ones are coming out all the time. Without the clinical testing required of real medicine, the harmful effects of herbal supplements can go undetected longer and affect a much larger number of people. Remember, just because something's been around for a long time doesn't mean that it's right. 

In conclusion, the next time you see the word natural associated with a food or supplement, keep in mind that natural does not equal healthy, many artificial enhancements have made our lives better, and that the word natural has probably been placed there just to sucker you out of some money. 


  1. Good article. Natural =/= safe.

    I wanted to add, regarding Health Canada, when a drug company makes a product (which takes on average 14 years to get a drug on a shelf), it is up to the drug company to prove to HC that the product is safe. However, with natural health products, though there are GMP (good manufacturing procedure) standards and labeling, it is up to HC to prove a natural health product is unsafe for it to have an associated warning/ taken off the shelf.

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