The idea that “natural” is better is heavily promoted in the health, fitness and beauty industry. Being natural may have an immediate appeal to many of us while something synthetic, artificial or man-made is unappealing. Besides, isn’t it common sense that natural must be better for us? We all want the food, supplements and products we use to be safe, healthy and wholesome. Isn’t natural always better? I wish I could simply give you an enthusiastic YES. It would be wonderful if it were that simple. How do we find an answer?
First we need to define “natural.” This is not as easy as it may appear. Does natural just mean something that occurs in nature. If we use that definition, then anything made of elements found in nature would be natural. We could say that natural is something that exists and is caused by nature and is not made or caused by man. This is a good definition, but then we have to consider how much human processing or alteration crosses over the line from natural to unnatural. Does chopping, cooking, breeding or isolating the active ingredient cross over the line? For example – most food we eat has been extensively cultivated over many centuries. Some food must be processed or modified to make the nutrients more bioavailable. The point is that there is not really a clear line between natural and man-made.
The next question: Is natural always safe, healthy and better for our environment? This again may seem obvious, but the answer is not so clear. Being found in nature is no guarantee that it is safe and healthy. Hemlock, arsenic, cyanide, venoms, botulin toxins, tobacco, tetanus, strychnine, radiation, cadmium, and harmful viruses are all found naturally. It is actually ego-centric to think that everything in nature was made for our benefit, pleasure and consumption. Many plants produce toxins to protect themselves from insects and fungi. We can’t randomly go in our backyard and begin eating plants. Among the agents identified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research in Cancer 62% occur naturally: 16 are natural chemicals, 11 are mixtures of natural chemicals, and 10 are infectious agents.
So how do we proceed? How do we really determine what is safe, healthy and wholesome? I think we can agree that we can’t make a broad sweeping generalization that natural is always better. It is important to realize that the biological activity of a chemical is a function of its structure rather than its origin. The significant thing is how our body responds to the specific chemical makeup of the substance. In the final analysis we must do the hard work of considering both natural and synthetic chemicals on an individual case by case basis when it comes to our health and safety. Just because something is natural does not mean that it should not be subject to testing and evidence. Our decisions should be informed by testing and evidence. This applies whether we deem a food or product natural or not. My personal bias is toward natural, but I try my best to make sure it has been tested for safety, health benefits, effectiveness and effects on the environment. Not easy but worth it. For specific information on whether to use natural or artificial ask your health professional.