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.


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

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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