Ivo Vegter • 7 January 2019
A pervasive myth has arisen around the word ‘natural’. When applied to food, medicine, cosmetics or cleaning products by marketing experts, it invariably implies not just a derivation from nature but also that it is better than manufactured alternatives. In fact, it often is significantly worse.
Marketers know very well that the label “natural” is a winner. “Natural goodness,” they’ll declare on an item of food. “Pure and natural,” they’ll gush, on face cream or body scrub. “100% natural, chemical-free,” they state on a hair conditioner. Millions of products and tens of thousands of books extol the virtues of everything from natural foods to natural remedies to natural health for dogs and cats.
Marketers, of course, have only one job. They get paid to make you buy more stuff. If their slogans, labels and taglines do not make a company more profitable, they are replaced. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that marketers are not always entirely honest.
Natural products can certainly rival, or even improve on, those produced in factories, but this is not a general rule. The underlying premise, that “natural” means “best”, “better” or even “good”, is wrong.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “natural” to mean “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”, and “having had a minimum of processing or preservative treatment”. Among its example sentences are several references to natural treatments, natural foodstuffs, natural preservatives, natural pesticides and natural doctors.
The aura surrounding the word “natural” is not at all well-founded, however. One of Oxford’s example sentences, “The additional benefit of using natural treatments is that they have no unwanted side effects,” gets to the heart of the matter.
This belief is not uncommon. According to one study, 56.2% of surveyed users of natural drugs believed they caused no side effects, 44.7% never reported natural drug usage to their physician, and 11% did so only rarely. Another study found that 45% of caregivers approached in a paediatric emergency department had given their children herbal products. Of all interviewees, 77% did not believe or were uncertain if herbal products had any side effects and only 27% could name a potential side effect. Sixty-six percent were unsure or thought that herbal products did not interact with other medications and only two people correctly named a drug interaction.
The problem is that this belief is entirely false, and therefore, dangerous. Natural treatments certainly do have side-effects. They are not tested as rigorously as formally approved pharmaceuticals are, so they are not disclosed as often, but suggesting that natural remedies have no side-effects is a marketing lie, designed to swindle the ignorant out of money to fill the seller’s coffers.
“Complementary and alternative medicines are increasingly used to diagnose or treat allergic diseases, and numerous studies have reported benefits of this type of medicine,” write Niggemann and Grüber in a 2003 study published in a journal about allergies.
“This article presents a review of the literature on risks of these methods. …Organ toxicity has been observed associated with various herbal preparations involving the liver, kidneys and the heart. Some herbs may have cancerogenic properties. Severe nutritional deficiencies can occur in infants and small children given strict alternative diets, resembling ‘kwashiorkor’. …The pattern of side‐effects is similar to that observed by the use of conventional medicine. Therefore, caution may be justified using both conventional and unconventional methods. Only if the benefit is proven and the side‐effects are established, should a given method be chosen.”
Michael Davis, a doctor with the International Essential Tremor Foundation examined five natural remedies for side-effects and drug interactions.
Gingko Biloba is promoted for use in improving cognitive function and blood flow. It has anti-oxidant properties and also inhibits blood clotting. As a result, however, it has spontaneous bleeding as a serious potential side-effect. It also interacts with blood-thinning drugs prescribed for cardiovascular conditions, such as aspirin and warfarin.
St John’s Wort is sold as a natural anti-depressant, and is often prescribed for this purpose in some countries. It does not have to meet the rigorous standards of ordinary pharmaceuticals for efficacy and safety, it interacts dangerously with regular anti-depressants, and can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, allergic reactions, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, dry mouth and phototoxicity.
Ephedra, a plant which contains ephedrine, is marketed for weight-loss, and for use as a decongestant, bronchodilator and stimulant. Hundreds of adverse reactions have been reported, however, including insomnia, nervousness, tremor, headaches, hypertension, seizures, kidney stones, arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke and death. It interacts negatively with caffeine, decongestants, stimulants.
Ginseng is promoted for a lot of things, including stress relief and improved sexual function. There is no evidence that it is effective for any purpose, however. It is generally well-tolerated, but a suspected case of interaction with warfarin, a blood-thinner, has been reported.
Kava is widely used as a sedative and tranquilliser for the control of anxiety and nervousness. It does have these properties, but that also makes it dangerous. It interacts with benzodiazepines, barbiturates, antipsychotics and alcohol. Like antipsychotics, it has motor-function side-effects, including dyskinesia (involuntary repetitive movement) in the mouth and tongue, torticollis (an abnormal twisting of the neck), painful twisting movements of the trunk, involuntary eye-rolling, and exacerbation of Parkinson’s disease. Several cases of abnormal skin conditions have also been reported.
A “100% natural, chemical-free” label is 100% nonsensical. Marijuana is perfectly natural, but its active ingredients are any of a wide range of cannabinoids, notably cannabidiol (which is not psychoactive) and tetrahydrocannabinol (which is).
Everything in the world consists of chemicals. The active ingredients in natural products are chemicals, just like the active ingredients in pharmaceuticals. In fact, very many conventional medicines are derived from pharmacologically active plants and fungi.
Opium is a perfectly natural painkiller and sedative, from which opiates like morphine and heroin were derived. That it is natural doesn’t make it any less addictive, dangerous or deadly.
Digitalis is a herbal remedy derived from the foxglove plant. It is frequently used as a treatment for heart failure, but it is also a potent and potentially fatal toxin.
Aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree. Traditional natural remedies are a great source for research into new medicines.
Any remedy, natural or conventional, may have positive effects and negative side-effects. There is a difference, however.
Consider digitalis. The traditional dosage starts at 1.5g of the actual leaf divided into two daily doses. Purified digoxin, which is the active ingredient, is typically used at daily doses of 0.125mg to 0.25mg. Because of variations in the concentration of an active ingredient in a plant, the dosage is far more accurate when the pure active ingredient has been extracted. This is particularly important in the case of digitalis, since ingestion of even small amounts can be fatal to humans. Even in medically supervised therapeutic use, toxicity is common.
Or take ephedra, mentioned above. Ephedrine is certainly effective as a stimulant, a decongestant, a vasoconstrictor and a bronchodilator. But only 30% to 90% of the alkaloids in the ephedra plant is in fact ephedrine. The final product, as sold in health stores, is extremely inconsistent, and routinely varies from the listed ingredients. The concentration of ephedrine can vary by as much as 1,000%, even between batches under the same brand name. It also contains a lot of other alkaloids besides ephedrine. Some countries have banned it over these safety concerns (although they were no doubt also motivated by its use as a precursor for manufacturing methamphetamines).
Now compare this to the process of creating conventional medicine. The active ingredient or ingredients in a plant, fungus or other substance are identified. These ingredients are then extracted, so you don’t end up with a mixture of dozens or hundreds of different chemicals that can all cause unwanted side-effects.
Unlike herbal remedies, which are largely unregulated, the medicine created from these active ingredients is then extensively tested, first in laboratory settings, sometimes in animals, and finally in human trials. These tests not only determine whether the medicine is effective, and indeed more effective than alternatives, but also in what dosage it should be prescribed, whether the medicine is safe, what side-effects might be anticipated, and whether there are conditions under which the medicine should not be taken.
The outcome is that conventional medicine is purer, more accurately dosed, and better tested for safety than any natural counterpart. There is a great need, for example, to systematically study the safety of drug interactions between natural products and conventional medicines. Natural medicines may sound safe, but they are actually more dangerous than conventional medicines.
When it comes to food, similar arguments hold. There is no inherent reason why natural ingredients should be any better than those that are synthetically produced.
Take preservatives, for example. They generally improve food safety, especially for consumers that do not have access to regular supplies of fresh food or lack reliable in-home refrigeration. They reduce spoilage, curb food-borne infections, and maintain nutritional quality over longer periods.
Whether the preservative is sugar, salt, vinegar, alcohol, herbs, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol (vitamin E), nitrites, sulphur dioxide or sulfites, benzoic acid or benzoates, sorbic acid or sorbates, propionic acid or propionates, or lactic acid makes no inherent safety or health difference. A few people will not be able to tolerate some of these substances, but as with medicines, industrial food additives are likely to be better tested than natural alternatives, so there is more reason to suppose they are safe for human consumption.
Food additives improve taste, appearance, texture, nutrition and other characteristics of food. Regulators have tested a wide variety of additives, both natural and artificial, for safety and effectiveness. In some cases they have been too strict, outlawing substances that were later found to be perfectly safe. Additives that are formally approved are far more likely to be safe than those used, largely untested, in “natural” foods.
The same is true for cosmetics. Whether the product is produced in a scientific manner in a clean laboratory or concocted by combining natural substances, makes no difference to its safety. It is likely, however, that professionally developed and tested products work better and are less likely to have adverse effects than preparations slapped up by small-scale amateurs.
Some chemicals are medicinal or healthful, some are harmful, and some do absolutely squat. Most are toxic in sufficiently high amounts. This is just as true for natural substances as it is for artificial or synthetic substances. If anything, natural products are more likely to be filled with unwanted ingredients, chemicals of uncertain dosages, or additives that are unsafe and untested.
The word “natural” on product packaging should not be a reassurance that it is better, safer or more effective than any alternative product. It should be cause for suspecting the opposite.