Dangerous Myths: Natural=Healthy

The idea that everything that is natural is also good for you is another staple of the all-organic, “chemical-free” movement we have looked at in my previous posts. Of course, the idea also comes with the corollary that everything “unnatural” (that is, that was not available pre-1900s I guess) is also bad for you.

vitamins1Interestingly, this is a relatively recent concept. In the 1950s (and in most decades before then) people flocked towards products that branded themselves as modified for improved health benefits. Bread containing added vitamins, vitamin cereals, extra-calcium milk and so on really took hold. And this was partially what helped most of the civilized world to move away from malnutrition and into a new era of foods rationally designed to nourish.


Of course nobody is saying that all attitudes of the 1950s were right, or even particularly
good for you…


With the 1960s came the new, hippie-inspired attitude that “natural is good” and that we should be treating our bodies like temples to Mother Nature.

Which is in part what’s translated in modern attitudes towards “chemicals” and “unnatural” products. I was teaching a pharmacology class a few months ago and I asked my students whether they thought that a drug naturally derived from a plant would be safer than one that had been chemically modified in the laboratory. Over half of my class said yes. And, judging from the attitudes society has towards “natural” products, you would think they were right. After all, “natural” products can’t harm you. You were meant to eat those!

The obvious fallacy with this way of thinking is that some things in nature are expressly produced to kill you and that artificially designed compounds are often made to be much safer. A classic example of this type of thing is foxglove.

734px-digitalis_purpurea_-_foxgloveFoxglove is a beautiful flower that is found in gardens and on the side of country roads all over Europe. It contains a very dangerous compound known as digitalis, which acts as a poison to kill all animals foolish enough to try and eat the flower. This is a very common defense mechanism in the vegetable kingdom: while a plant cannot run away, it can produce poison and advertise the fact with a bright color and dissuade attackers from eating it. Digitalis works by slowing down the heart to such an extent the animal eventually stops breathing and dies. However, human beings have worked this out and have managed to made a more sensible for of digitalis, which is now one of the most common types of heart medication in the world. People with high blood pressure really benefit from having their heart rate slowed down – which is only possible because we have taken the “natural” and turned into the “unnatural”.

So next time somebody tells you something is good because it’s “natural”, ask a few questions!




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