Thursday, July 16, 2020

It's only natural

It is hard these days to shop for anything, whether at the supermarket, the pharmacy or the beauty shop, without seeing products touted as being “natural.” The term is used even more often than its frequent companion, “organic.” Over the past decade, while total food sales have risen 2%, sales of “natural” food have risen 12% and “organic” foods 15%. Clearly these words sell products, but is it always a good idea to buy a natural product over others? What does “natural” really mean?

When a food is using the USDA-approved label of organic, this does have some specificity. By law, products labelled organic must be grown with no genetically modified ingredients, no irradiation, no antibiotics, no synthetic feeds or pesticides, no hormones and no chemical fertilizers. The contents of a package must be over 95% organic to carry the label. (Note that in many parts of the world, “night soil” is used as fertilizer, and while this is organic, I would prefer not to eat food fertilized with the contents of an outhouse.)

There is no legal definition of “natural.” One is reminded of the line from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty says to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Perhaps because of the lack of a defined meaning, you will see “natural” used on supplements, food products, cosmetics and just about anything else you can buy. Unfortunately, many clearly natural products are dangerous. After all, botulinum toxin is a natural substance, found in nature with no human intervention, but it will paralyze and kill you when ingested. (In micro-doses, botulinum toxin is safely used as Botox.) Many natural products found in marketed “supplements” have dangerous potential. These would include cesium chloride and aconite (heart rhythm problems), lobelia (seizures), kava kava and celandine (liver failure) and germanium (kidney damage). If you are taking a “supplement,” look for these ingredients and toss the tablets if any of these products are in them.

“Natural skin care” has become a multi-billion-dollar market, carving out 25% of the $5.6 billion spent in 2018 on skin care products. “Clean beauty” evangelists such as Gwyneth Paltrow have ignited fear in consumers about using many products such as sulfates, parabens and propylene glycol, not on the basis of facts but by using scary statements such as “do you want antifreeze in your moisturizer?” Dermatologists have pointed out that many of the “natural” products touted are more likely to cause allergic reactions than the products they are replacing. [See JAMA Dermatology, December 2019.] A widely used web site from the Environmental Working Group touts safe skin products, but in many cases gets a percentage of sales from products it deems safe, an obvious conflict of interest.

So, when shopping, remember that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, natural is in the claims of the seller, and don’t pay up for something unless there is a good reason to do so.

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