Recently, I watched an episode of the Netflix docuseries A User’s Guide to Cheating Death that challenged the idea that “natural” is always good for you. I also saw a post by Trish on The Introspective Salon on the same topic, so 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, so labels claiming a product is “natural” that should be taken with a grain of salt, since it’s essentially meaningless. If we take natural to mean things that are normally found in nature, we’re talking about an extremely broad range of substances. There seems to be this idea floating around that natural is always better, except it ignores a whole lot of not so nice things that are found in nature.
“Natural” can harm
One need look no farther than the basic elements like arsenic, lead, and radon, or a simple 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. Other harmful “natural” techniques that some parents inflict on their kids include administering substances like bleach with the belief that it will supposedly treat autism.
The natural products industry
Like Trish mentioned, it’s easy to find people attacking the big pharma machine, but the same critical eye isn’t directed 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 were valued at $133.1 billion USD. Not only is there big money involved, but they also don’t have to go through the same stringent regulatory process that prescription drugs do.
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 it may or may not do what it claims to do. The consumer isn’t given any idea of other substances that it may interact with.
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, and even if there is some scientific fact underlying a claim it doesn’t mean that the interpretation hasn’t blown things out of proportion.
I liked A User’s Guide To Cheating Death, but at times it seemed to go a little too far in the anti-natural direction. 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 and marketing; it’s just a matter of keeping that radar active just as much for natural products as for drugs.
There’s more on pseudoscience and public health on The Science Corner.The Science Corner: Debunking Pseudoscience