There seems to be an obsession with the word “natural.” We look for it everywhere and, if necessary, are willing to pay more for products deemed natural. If this were not the case, there would probably not be so much emphasis on advertisements and product labels that show the products’ natural qualities.

“A living product, 100% natural,” reads a bread advertisement. “100% natural diuretic,” another product is described, which is also stated to be “a natural traditional mixture of concentrated powder extracted from plants.” The “100% natural energiser” contains a blend of honey, pollen and propolis. A company presents its apple juice as a “100% natural product,” and the sentence that follows says that “this 100% natural juice does not contain preservatives, artificial dyes or flavours, food additives, and has no added sugar.”

Traders insist on the “natural” qualities of their products because they know that this is what consumers want. And consumers want natural products because they are convinced that they are good.

A large cosmetics company addresses the ladies: “Be naturally beautiful… with the new range… naturally. Made out of almost entirely natural ingredients…”, “Propolis is the only 100% natural antibiotic.” “Start a 100% natural soap business!” Not to mention companies and online shops that include the words “natural,” “nature,” or their lexical derivatives in their names.

To many of us, everything that is natural is good by default. However, what if this is not always the case, what if not everything natural is necessarily good, and what if the emphasis on the “natural” qualities of a product is just a marketing tool? How are things in reality?

The goodness of nature

Undoubtedly, many natural products are good. When people say “good” in this context, they don’t think so much about taste (which can be considered in the case of food), but—most of the time—about the beneficial effects or the lack of health risks for people.

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natural is good

There aren’t many people who dispute that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is a healthy and risk-free habit, therefore, fruits and vegetables, being natural, are also good. Likewise, there is at least the intuition that between a “100% natural” juice and a brightly coloured and sweetened soda, the former is better, with lower health risks than the latter. Likewise, the consumer has in mind that between the meat of animals raised on a small farm in the countryside and the meat of animals “full of hormones” on industrial farms, the former is healthier, therefore, better.

The obsession with the natural…

There is the generalisation that everything natural is good, and that which is artificial is questionable, and must be viewed with caution. Hence the fear of pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics, drugs, and everything that has an artificial character, created by human hands. Hence, the belief that “natural” remedies are superior to medicines, and the outright rejection of these “chemicals” with which current medicine operates.

There is a saying generally attributed to Alexandre Dumas fils (but sometimes to Mark Twain or some other well-known characters), according to which “all generalisations are dangerous, including this one.” And, in the case of this “myth of the natural,” generalisation is dangerous because, in reality, not everything that is natural is good.

…and its wickedness

There are many examples of plants, products, or natural substances that are far from good. Tobacco is a plant that grew spontaneously in the New World, until the spread of smoking in both worlds forced its cultivation for commercial purposes. However, tobacco, although still consumed by millions of nicotine addicts, is not “good.” Mushrooms are all natural, but while some can be very good, there are many others that we should not touch, let alone consume.

Alcohol can form naturally, but is far from healthy or “good”. Most of the classic drugs such as hashish, opium, coca leaves, peyote, and so on, are “natural” products obtained, by very simple processes, from plants, almost a trivial harvesting operation, but the fact that they are natural does not make them good for the healthy person. Many powerful poisons are formed naturally in some plants.

Medicinal plants are not necessarily less toxic (although some may be) than conventional (synthetic) medicines. St. John’s wort, for example, consumed in the form of tea for 2-3 weeks can cause phototoxic photosensitivity reactions causing skin “burns” when exposed to the sun for relatively short periods of time.

Common comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that have been shown to be toxic to the liver, which is why use for medicinal purposes should be limited to external applications and never internal (even though many “healers” recommend internal use for various conditions).

Ginseng, used in relatively large quantities, can cause what we call ginseng abuse syndrome, which has inhibitory effects on the central nervous system, and Ginkgo biloba can cause digestive disorders, headaches and dizziness.[1]

In nature, confusion can be fatal

Much more problematic, however, are the so-called “medicinal plants,” which in reality are highly toxic, such as the Birthwort (Aristolochia clematitis) or wolf’s-bane. The Birthwort is a plant recommended by some so-called “naturalist” healers and therapists as a “miracle plant” and “a new weapon in the fight against cancer.” In reality, it is one of the most dangerous plants for human health, being known as nephrotoxic (toxic to the kidneys) and carcinogenic (it causes cancer) since the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, a Belgian clinic identified more than 100 patients who had used Chinese tea for weight loss and all of whom developed rapidly progressive fibrosing interstitial nephritis. 

It was later found that almost half of these patients also developed urinary tract tumours. Many countries in Europe and other continents then banned the marketing and import of Aristolochia plants. The tea also accidentally contained Birthwort. Despite this sad experience, an article recently described another 300 such cases identified at a clinic in Beijing.[2]

Wolf’s-bane contains one of the most powerful poisons (a few milligrams can kill a human) and yet some people recommend the aerial part of the species for various ailments. Although the tuberous roots are rich in aconitine, the aerial part also contains it, so the use of the above-ground portion of the plant (leaves, and stem) can be fatal.

Another problem related to the supposed natural products is the confusion when identifying the plants. Digitalis (a potentially lethal plant) poisoning has been reported in several people who thought they had picked Common comfrey leaves. In the case of Belgian patients intoxicated with Birthwort, the cause was the confusion of the Chinese tea producers, who replaced a traditional Chinese medicine species (Stephania tetrandra)—because of a faulty identification—with the Birthwort species (Aristolochia fangchi).

“Natural” is not necessarily synonymous with “good”

Ultimately, the fact that a product is natural and non-toxic (which can happen frequently) does not necessarily make it an effective medicine in the treatment of certain diseases. Shark cartilage has been and is widely promoted as a treatment for cancer. However, data published so far on several advanced cancers have not shown that this natural product influences the course of the disease. There are many other examples, but we believe that those allowed by the editorial space so far are sufficient.

In conclusion, not everything that is natural is necessarily good. When we use or purchase natural products, we need to use our discernment and critical thinking so that we use only the good products.

Robert Ancuceanu is a doctoral professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy within the “Carol Davila” University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania.

[1]„A. Dasgupta, «Review of abnormal laboratory test results and toxic effects due to use of herbal medicines», Am J Clin Pathol, July 2003, 20 (1), p.127-137.”
[2]„MR Gökmen, GM Lord, “Aristolochic acid nephropathy, BMJ, 15 June 2012, 344:e4000.”

„A. Dasgupta, «Review of abnormal laboratory test results and toxic effects due to use of herbal medicines», Am J Clin Pathol, July 2003, 20 (1), p.127-137.”
„MR Gökmen, GM Lord, “Aristolochic acid nephropathy, BMJ, 15 June 2012, 344:e4000.”