what exactly do you mean by “natural?”

In a universe where everything is made of chemicals, "natural" is just a buzzword used to make a bigger profit.
chemistry diagram

Pop quiz. Should you let someone ingest dihydrogen monoxide? How about sodium chloride? Or what about lithium perchlorate? What do you think? The answers are absolutely, in moderation and no way, respectively. Chemistry has a way of making everything sound sinister and alien, whether it’s something we need to live, like water, something we use every day like salt or an electrolyte in lithium batteries which has no business in our bodies. Invoking those scary sounding components is an effective PR tool for anti-vaccine advocates and people who want to sell you something that’s supposedly good for you because it’s “natural.”

I’ve always had trouble understanding that part about “natural” in advertisements for herbal remedies pitched by the supplement industry and alternative medicine. Natural is supposed to invoke images of endless fields of flowers and forests bursting with life, providing sustenance to countless organisms, including humans. But there are also quite a few very natural ways to kill yourself very quickly and painfully since nature could poison you as easily as it could nourish you. The only real difference between a random herb in pill form in a pill from a drug company, is that the former isn’t clinically tested for its efficacy and is being pitched to you on the basis of warm fuzzies and an occasional conspiratorial reference to how Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know how well it works because they can’t make money off the particular herb, which probably has a chemical name as scary as anything dispensed by a pharmacist.

But the thing is, drug companies can and do make money from plants and herb extracts. They just spend the an average of $800 million from lab to market and submit years of test data to the FDA for review. On the other hand, the people who sell what they call natural supplements don’t have to do any of the above thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 which treats them as food and requires no proof of their efficacy in anything. This is why you see those nearly microscopic disclaimers on the bottom of the TV screen during commercials for diet pills and natural supplements which state that the product hasn’t been approved by the FDA and can’t be used to treat or diagnose anything. Despite the fact that the ads will pitch them as a cure for whatever ails you, from weight problems to the size of your reproductive organs…

And funny enough, if you think that all those “natural” things don’t have side-effects in large enough doses, you might be surprised to learn that there’s absolutely nothing that could prevent you from having allergic reactions or adverse reactions to some mysterious herb in a can. Worse yet, if you’re taking prescription medication, the supplements may adversely interact with them. So next time you hear the term “natural,” ask yourself what’s the risk and whether seemingly scary sounding chemistry is really all that bad.

# science // alternative medicine / medicine / nature / supplements


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