For Naturopathic Medicine Week, I decided to re-write a blog post I wrote a few years ago, discussing the meaning of the term “natural”. I felt that this was relevant to NMW because I feel that naturopaths do a disservice to both their patients and their practice by touting “natural” as the safe and superior alternative to allegedly harmful “artificial” treatments and therapies.
While it is entirely possible that some advice given by naturopaths (certain nutritional advice, for instance) may lead to improved health, other practices used by naturopaths are not conclusively effective (e.g., homeopathy) or are ineffective (e.g., colonics).
Naturopathy, unlike real (scientific) medicine, has no good criteria for determining whether an intervention is effective, because they don’t follow any objective investigation methods. It is largely assumed that “natural” treatments will produce better results. This practice is complicated by the fact that it is impossible to draw a clear line between “artificial” and “natural” treatments, because the extent to which “natural” products are actually natural is unclear.
This all began during the summer of 2008, when read this article on “Organic” foods at quackwatch.org. Following the article, the author had posted a reader protest complaining how it was unfair to lump organic farmers/foodies in with other “quacks”. The reader asks:
Honestly, is it so nutty to think we would be better off eating food that ISN’T full of chemicals and additives, preservatives and artificial colors?
I thought about this question for a bit, and came to the realization that the answer is “yes”. Nutty is probably not the word I would use, but to think that we would be better off eating “food that isn’t full of chemicals, additives, preservatives, and artificial colors” struck me as a strange belief. More accurately, it is a tad nutty to believe that so-called “natural” or “organic” products do not contain chemicals, additives, preservatives and artificial colors, like their “non-organic” counterparts. The truth is that all foods — not just “artificial” foods — contain chemical preservatives and colors. This reader simply fell into the trap mentioned above, assuming that because the chemicals found in organic foods are naturally occurring, they must also be safe (or at least better for us). This is a fallacy known as the appeal to nature and it is the foundation of naturopathy and a lot of other new-age quackery.
To see why “natural” and “safe” are not necessarily synonymous, all we have to do is turn our attention to the 100% all-natural castor oil plant, which produces the castor bean. The castor bean can be refined into a nasty poison called ricin — one of the most deadly toxins known to humankind. In fact, nature produces just as many harmful substances as it does beneficial substances… if not more. Nature is chock full of poisonous plants and animals; all of them are 100% natural. Furthermore, “synthetic” compounds created by humans are merely variations (if not exact duplicates) of chemicals that already exist in nature.
Insofar as it applies to the realm of biology and chemistry, any distinction between a natural and artificial chemical is tenuous at best. The synthesis of chemicals by humans usually involves nothing more than facilitating, or expediting, synthetic processes already found in nature. Even when we create elements that are not naturally occurring, we produce them using other natural elements. But it’s not as if you would find Ununpentium on the ingredients list of your favorite cereal. Meanwhile, finding all natural Uranium-238 on the ingredients list might be cause for concern.
This is not to say that all chemicals manufactured by humans are safe — some are clearly dangerous. Furthermore, things like pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are intended to be harmful, and are therefore manufactured to be poisonous at certain doses to certain organisms (pesticides would be pointless if they were not harmful to insects). The question we should be asking is whether there is any harm caused by the use of “artificial”, as opposed to “natural”, chemicals in our food, or even whether there is any meaningful distinction between the two. Additives, preservatives, and coloring agents are all things that occur naturally in food. All of our “artificial” additives, preservatives, and coloring agents are based off of these naturally occurring chemicals.
As far as pesticides are concerned, we know that there is no evidence to support claims that there are substantial health effects (either positive or negative) from the use of common “artificial” pesticides and preservatives. Furthermore, there is no evidence that “organic” pesticides or preservatives are any safer than are their “artificial” counterparts. There is, however, an advantage to using “manufactured” or “processed” pesticides and chemicals: these chemicals have been rigorously tested and deemed safe for human consumption. The same cannot be said for “natural” products, which are often just assumed healthful due to their “natural” status. This is not to say that there cannot be a difference between the two; either of the two types of products — “natural” or manufactured — have the potential to be relatively more healthful or harmful. The point is that we cannot know, without first testing the products. We cannot just assume that natural products are good, and artificial products are bad.
The same thing can be said about additives and preservatives. Too much salt or caffeine is bad for the human body, regardless of whether the source is “natural” or “artificial”. In fact, consuming too much of something is often a bad idea, regardless of its ontological status.
The fact is that no matter where you go, or what you decide to eat, your food will contain chemicals, additives, preservatives, and colors. There is no reason to believe that the chemicals that we add to our food are any more harmful or beneficial than those that are naturally occurring. Nature was not designed for human consumption, and there are some nasty things out there that, despite being all-natural, you would not want to eat.
On the other hand, we often fortify our foods with minerals or vitamins that our bodies require in order to function normally. This is often achieved by adding things that would not otherwise be found in our food, or augmenting the existing nutrients. Food additives can be incredibly beneficial. Things like fluoridated water, iodized salt, and calcium-fortified cereals (just to name a few), all use everyday foods as delivery mechanisms for things that are beneficial to our health.
For anybody who still has any serious doubts, just look around you. Overall, our food is healthy and abundant (sometimes too abundant), allowing us to live healthier and longer lives than our ancestors. Contrast this with the fact that humans had previously been living on “natural” products for thousands of years, and all that time dying young, and usually of horrible diseases. The evidence simply does not support the conclusion that we are better off going with “natural” over “artificial” foods. And this principle doesn’t only apply to foods — we should be wary of claims made by anybody be they politician, farmer, naturopath, or even a skeptic, if they tell you that something is good for you just because it is “natural”.