Does “Natural” Mean Better for You?

Does natural mean better for you? Or is it just a marketing tactic?

Recently, I watched an episode of the Netflix docuseries A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, which challenged the idea that “natural” is always good for you. I decided to throw in my own two cents about the issue of whether “natural” is actually a good thing.

What does “natural” mean?

The term “natural” isn’t regulated in any way; that means that labels claiming a product is “natural” that should be taken with a grain of salt.  If we interpret natural as things that occur in nature, that’s an extremely broad range of substances. The common belief that natural is always better ignores a whole lot of unpleasant things that are found in nature.

Natural things can harm

One need look no farther than the basic elements like arsenic, lead, and radon, or a compound like hydrogen cyanide. There are many plant and fungal species that are toxic to humans, along with venom and other toxic compounds from critters like snakes and pufferfish. Plus, there’s all the non-toxic but just a bit yucky things that nature comes up with. Then again, maybe I should be marketing ground-up guinea pig poop as some sort of healing product.

Some people take it to extremes. In Canada, a few years ago, two parents were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life after their infant son died of meningitis; they were acquitted on retrial. Rather than seeking medical attention for him, they were trying to cure him with herbal and dietary supplements. Another harmful “natural” technique that some parents inflict on their kids is administering bleach to “treat” autism.

The natural products industry

Many people attack the Big Pharma machine, but they don’t direct the same critical eye toward the natural products industry. These supplements may be “natural”, but they’re also big business. According to GrandView Research, global sales of dietary supplements in 2016 reached USD 133.1 billion. Not only is there big money involved, but they also don’t have to go through the same stringent regulatory process as prescription drugs.

In Canada, natural supplements fall under Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Regulations. Health Canada assesses “whether there is reasonable assurance that benefits of the product outweigh any risk” and whether there is evidence to “support the reasonable association of the medicinal ingredient(s) with the health claim(s) and demonstrate that therapeutic efficacy of the product will be supported by at least one medicinal ingredient or the combination of more than one.” The requirements are even looser for products used as “traditional medicines.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses the term “dietary supplements.” It seems to take a fairly hands-off approach:

Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.

For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.

Essentially, something that may or may not contain the amount of a substance that it says it has, and may or may not do what it claims to do.

What role should supplements play?

That’s not to say that we should dismiss these natural supplements entirely. Some vitamins, minerals, and other supplements are useful for certain populations. There is scientific evidence to support certain claims, like omega-3 fatty acids being helpful for mood disorders. Unfortunately, it’s hard to separate out the fact from the fiction without doing some in-depth research.

I liked A User’s Guide To Cheating Death, but at times it seemed to go a little too far. I don’t think that extreme views in either the anti-natural or anti-drug direction are particularly useful. It’s possible to be a discerning consumer and at least try to separate the solid evidence from the hype; it’s just a matter of keeping that radar active just as much for natural products as for drugs.

12 thoughts on “Does “Natural” Mean Better for You?”

  1. Hey! Thank you for mentioning me. I started watching “A User’s Guide” as well, but I was mostly only interested in the episodes about detoxing, natural/organic, and dieting. I thought that the episodes were too short! I would have loved a more deep examination into some of these natural practices, and a more critical look at some of the naturopath proponents he interviewed. I personally thought the show wasn’t critical enough. But, I’ve only watched season one so far. I do agree that there is some value in certain alternative products and practices. I agree with you that thinking in extremes on either traditional medicine or the natural approach is not beneficial. I was talking with my sister about this recently because she has been doing accupuncture since her gynecologist pretty much dismissed her concerns about having a heavy period by only providing her with one option: and IUD. But, my sister doesn’t want an IUD, so she took her health into her own hands by seeking a different treatment, and I can commend that. However, I think that part of the problem with people choosing alternative treatments is that we aren’t taught to advocate for ourselves at the doctors. We have this culture that doctors either know best, or that what they say is final, when really, we should be encouraged to speak up when the treatments they propose or offer aren’t working, or don’t feel right for us.

    1. I agree, we should always be active partners in our treatment. It would be nice if there were a few reliable, authoritative sources that people could go to to seek out information. So much of the info out there on natural products is complete BS, and most people don’t have the background knowledge to be able to go directly to high quality primary research literature. It could make a big difference if regulators made it illegal to make BS health claims.

      1. I AGREE! It’s so crazy to me that these natural products and practitioners who make completely false claims just . . . exist. As if there’s nothing wrong. And the ability to scan a text for legitimacy, even when it’s full of jargon, is something that many people don’t have. I mean, I didn’t learn critical reading skills until college!

  2. The thing I hate about “natural” remedies is the frequent claim for lack of or minimal side effects. That’s rubbish. Anything which has a measurable effect logically carries a risk that some of that effect will be undesirable – a side effect or adverse effect in other words. This applies not just to substances eg supplements, but to psychological/behavioural interventions as well. Don’t get me started on my experiences with meditation as a therapeutic intervention and the lack of warning about the potential adverse effects of that.

    There are lots of other issues as well that you’ve covered – imprecise dosing, contamination, diverting time and money away from more effective treatments sometimes with life-threatening consequences. But also many of these so-called natural remedies have been so highly processed that they may as well be completely artificial anyway. And regardless of whether the source of the ingredients is natural or completely artificial, you can’t always distill a benefit down to a neat little pill. Sometimes the benefits are dependent on (maybe less easily measured) factors as well, and you’ll only really get the full benefit in the original context.

  3. I bet that was interesting, and you make a valid point about having to vet both sides when it comes to what is going into certain products. It seems beneficial for people to really educate themselves on particular ingredients and what they mean, which can be intimidating since ingredients lists can run a mile long!

  4. I really agree on you. Natural products are good but not in excessive way. My father takes medication and insulin for his diabetes. If he doesn’t take it he would die. I take antidepressants and anti anxiety medication. I tried herbal natural medicine such as St Jans Wort and Valerian but nothing worked. Medication is so important and I’m glad that it exists.

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