Natural Good, Chemical Bad – Right?




Opinion CategoryArsenic sandwich anyone? Mercury soup, deadly nightshade surprise? No? Really? Well, I’m baffled! They’re all natural you know. And as we know, natural is good; natural is pure. Best of all, natural is healthy.

Such is the creed that has grown up around natural products. You want to market a new range of face cream –- make sure everyone knows it is natural. You want your expensive new yogurt to sell –- include the word “natural” on the packaging. The word “natural” has become byword for purity, health and goodness.

ChemicalsSo, why are we so obsessed by natural products? It may be that we associate science with all that is bad in the modern world –- pollution, climate change, the nuclear threat. By rejecting science and its associated chemicals, perhaps we believe that we can return to a gentler time in which the honest farmer toiled the land and people’s lives were more in tune with nature. While it is true that we have drifted away from nature, largely to the detriment of the health of the planet, this view is in danger of romanticizing the past into a golden age that never really existed. At the start of the nineteenth century, global average life expectancy was less than 30 years; today it is around 67. The infant mortality rate in Europe in the 1860s was around 230 per 1,000, compared with less than 50 per 1,000 in the 1950s. If you asked parents of the nineteenth century whether they wanted their child to be vaccinated against the ravages of polio, they wouldn’t understand why you even needed to ask.

The current generation living in the Western world is the luckiest in history. We have forgotten what it is like to be surrounded by death, disease and infirmity. It is because we enjoy such comfort and security that we find ourselves in a position to be picky about what we eat, wear and put on our bodies. We demand that things be natural only because science has given us that luxury.

I am not arguing that natural is bad; I am simply saying that just because something is natural, it does not make it good. Even more, I am objecting to the artificial and facile distinction between natural and chemical. If you analyze a banana, you find 39 chemicals, including 2-heptyl acetate, isoamyl acetate. 2-methylbutyl acetate and 2-heptyl acetate. Try putting this list of ingredients on a package label and see how much you sell.

The separation into natural versus chemical may be tempting, it may be convenient, but I don’t believe it’s actually helpful. Some people may find this argument gives them a headache — in which case they may like to chew on the bark of a willow. Personally, I’d rather take a couple of aspirin.

References

Riley JC. Rising Life Expectancy: A Global History. New York, US: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Bideau A, Desjardins B, Pérez Brignoli H. Infant and Child Mortality in the Past. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Pino, JA, Ortega A, Marbot, R, & Aguero, J (2003). Volatile components of banana fruit (musa sapientum L.) “Indio” for Cuba JEOR

  • Aaron

    I’m guessing you’ve seen/heard Tim Minchin’s beat poem “Storm”? If not, you must.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB_htqDCP-s

  • I hadn’t; but I have now. Superb! Thank you.

  • When herbs are used rather than the active agents extracted therefrom there are less side effects (presuming they are used correctly).

    In this way ‘natural’ is much better. To put it less simplistically ‘natural’ is to do with complexity and the reductionism of the chemical approach can lead to bad health outcomes.

  • Matthew

    Evan,

    Cite, please.

  • KnightBright

    Socrates died from a natural tea. But he was killed by bad people.

  • Kierra

    “When herbs are used rather than the active agents extracted therefrom there are less side effects (presuming they are used correctly).”

    While it’s possible that the other ingredients can have a synergistic effect with the active chemical, it really depends on the herb/drug you are talking about. Many times the active ingredient is purified out to get rid of unwanted side effects.

    Aspirin is a good example of this (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_aspirin), which was specifically designed to be a less irritating variant of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in willow bark.

  • Erin Raper

    I consider myself a bit of a naturalist (had my son at home in a pool, rather than hospital) and there are certainly positive and negative sides to both natural and “other”. “Acetaminophen-containing products (Tylenol, Midol, Alka-Seltzer Plus, Vanquish, etc.) result in over 100,000 calls a year to poison control centers, 560,000 visits to emergency facilities, 260,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths. From 1996 to 1998 the average annual deaths directly attributed to acetaminophen averaged approximately 458. I wonder what the regulatory agencies would do if a supplement were to kill 450 people a year?”

    [http://altmedangel.com/asthma.htm]

    Consider taking melatonin for insomnia instead of Ambien which includes side effects of “sleep driving” yeah, that’s not dangerous! You just have to be an intelligent consumer and do your own research

  • Dear Erin,

    There are several issues with your argument against conventional pharmacotherapeutics that I must briefly shed light on. First, the morbidity/mortality that you attribute to acetaminophen (Tylenol) is largely related to toxic-dose ingestion. This can occur with “natural” compounds as well, and it surely does. Take, for instance, hepatotoxicity (liver-damage) associated with kava. Also, you can find a table that lists supplements, toxic doses, and symptoms of toxicity/side-effects here.

    I wonder what the regulatory agencies would do if a supplement were to kill 450 people a year?

    Second, given the minimal regulation of supplements, your question cannot be addressed. If quality data has not been collected, then you are arguing a moot point. The FDA specifically says,

    …manufacturers do not need to register themselves nor their dietary supplement products with FDA before producing or selling them. Currently, there are no FDA regulations that are specific to dietary supplements that establish a minimum standard of practice for manufacturing dietary supplements.

    Lastly, congratulations on giving natural birth to your child “in a pool,” but I wouldn’t advertise that alternative to everyone. After you see just as single neonatal resuscitation by a qualified neonatologist or massive maternal hemorrhage hemostasis (bleeding control) by an obstetrician, perhaps you’d think twice about water births.

    Thanks for your input!

    Sincerely,
    Shaheen

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  • Murfomurf

    A parent of an autistic youngster advocating banning vaccinations and using “chelation therapy” for leaching “toxins” from the body, informed me that iron isn’t a “chemical” because it is a “natural” part of the blood! OMG- I sometimes nearly tear my hair out at the alternative usages of “organic”, “natural”, “chemical” and “de-tox”. Argghh!!!

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  • Cezar

    Prejudice, ignorance and marketing BS aside, I’d say there’s a higher probability for toxicity and unknown effects (short-, long-term) for a synthetic compound than for a substance produced and used by a living cell (for a positive outcome that is:) ). On the other hand, I guess it’s theoretically easier to research the effects of a single novel compound. I have little prejudice on the matter, I’d take anything with solid research behind it and enough human experimentation (ie many people taking it for a reasonable amount of time, as close as possible to my potential life span). Under a veil of ignorance though, i’d rather ingest what my family tree did than whatever the doctor ordered. I think most of the prejudice is because healthcare providers are unfortunately human too and thus under the occasional suspicion of ignorance and biased reasoning. Desperate parents aside lol.

  • I do agree that when we analyze a so-called natural product like banana we might end up writing a very lengthy list of chemicals.
    So, drawing a line between natural and chemical is tough or almost impossible.

    But I think we can clearly draw a line between natural & artificial. Cant we? So in that angle, I would like to really know, if we synthesize all the chemicals which is there in a naturally grown banana and if we artificially create a banana, will it be as good as the naturally grown banana and also without any other side effects? I mean, will it be just the same as the naturally grown banana?

  • Hi, good post. I completely agree that the association of natural with good and “chemical” with bad is a crazy dualism that should be put to bed. The thing about the real world (opposite reductionist science) is that things rarely fit nicely into exactly two categories.

    Despite this, I still have this idea that natural is better than artificial, but of course a claim like this has a lot to do with the definition of “better”. In terms of lifespan? Happiness? Disease? These are all different fields in which to independently analyze the natural vs. “chemical” dualism.

    At the end, instead of debating which side is better, I wonder if we might see the benefits of both.

    Also, the book titled “In Defense of Food” is a great read for anyone interested in the history and present state of food in the West, and pays specific attention to the effects of “chemicals” in our daily diet.

  • Julie S

    This is an interesting article with some valid points. Its true, the terms “natural” and “organic” are becoming very pervasive and in my opinion, becoming a marketing tool to command premium pricing. However, one distinction that was not raised in the article is the difference between natural/naturopathic vs conventional approaches to medicine. In my experience, naturopathic physicians try to focus on the underlying core elements of the illness and then use the body’s own tools to help the healing process. When I’ve gone to conventional doctors, they always have a pre-determined solution to my problem, which is some sort of pharmaceutical. Just because people exhibit similar symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean the root cause or the solution should be identical. I believe naturopathic medicine is more “natural” because it’s an individualized tailored solution geared at stimulating the bodies own defenses. For those new to naturopathic medicine, I’d recommend going to http://www.ndselect.com which has some useful info. That’s my two cents worth.

  • Great article and an interesting perspective on natural vs. synthetic. Thanks for your contribution to Take Charge of Your Health Care Carnival.

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Rachel Danks, PhD

Rachel Danks, PhD, is a freelance medical writer and editor with over 12 years of experience in the field. She has written and edited numerous academic papers, and is experienced in preparing marketing materials, educational resources and regulatory documents. Her clients include medical education groups, advertising agencies, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions.
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