Supplement Ad Claim of the Month: "All Natural"

Supplement Ad Claim of the Month: “All Natural”

“All natural” – the phrase casts a soft-focus, warm, rosy glow over everything it’s applied to, doesn’t it?  After all, this is “Mother Nature” we’re talking about here!  If you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust?

This equation of “natural” with “wholesome” contrasts rather sharply with some of the things I learned in graduate school.  I vividly recall one class in particular, “Foodborne Infections and Intoxications,” which was a crash course on how to investigate disease outbreaks associated with the consumption of food and water.  I always felt a bit queasy after class, although I guess this was a pretty “natural” reaction to the course material.  How would you feel if you had to talk about vomit, diarrhea, neurotoxicity, liver damage and cardiopulmonary arrest for an hour each day?

In other classes, I learned about the many naturally-occurring anti-nutritional factors, carcinogens, goitrogens and allergens often present in ordinary foods, and how to deal with them, where possible.  Potatoes are a perfect example.  As healthy as they are, potatoes are also quite capable of producing toxic glycoalkaloids under certain conditions.  This is why specific cultivars and recommendations for storage/handling conditions have been developed

There’s also aflatoxin in peanut butter and patulin in apple juice – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Don’t get me started…

One of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard about overconfidence in nature involved a family living the organic, simple life, which included raising free-range goats for their milk.  The goats, unfortunately, were grazing on lupins, the seeds of which contain anagyrine, a teratogen.  Not only did the goats give birth to kids with limb deformities, the woman’s baby and a litter of puppies were also affected, since the mothers drank the goats’ milk during pregnancy. 

Sorry to belabor the point, but it’s important to understand that nature is NOT benign.  You can’t assume that something is perfectly safe to consume, just because it’s “natural.”

What does this have to do with dietary supplements?  Rather a lot, actually.

There isn’t a very sharp line between herbal “nutraceuticals” and pharmaceuticals.  In fact, a number of pharmaceuticals were originally derived from the active compounds in plants. Some obvious examples are the drugstore staples ephedrine (e.g., Bronkaid), caffeine (e.g., NoDoz) and aspirin (e.g., Bayer).  Do these look familar?  They should: they’re also components of the classic “ECA Stack” used by bodybuilders to lean out, and were the active compounds in now defunct diet supplement formulas, such as the original “Ripped Fuel,” “Dymetradine Xtreme” and “Xenadrine RFA-1.” 

As many people know, the ECA stack works pretty darned well for fat loss.  It can also cause side effects, however, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, headache, anxiety, insomnia, etc. Most of these are minor and relatively short-lived for healthy people who take the stack as directed.  Bigger problems, however, were inevitable due to the emphasis placed on the “all natural” sources used as ingredients in the above supplements: guarana (caffeine), Ma Huang (ephedra) and white willow bark (salicin – similar to aspirin in structure and effects). 

As Paul noted in his Xenadrine RFA-1 review:

“Since ephedrine is often derived from herbals, (Ma Huang, Sida Cordifolia, Country Mallow), products containing ephedrine are often described as “all-natural.” Consumers perceive such products as healthy, and tend to regard label warnings and dosage requirements with less than the appropriate amount of respect.

The fact that the ephedrine is derived from all-natural sources doesn’t make it any less of a health hazard for certain individuals. So in many ways, the supplement retailers are largely responsible for the ephedra ban (as unwarranted as it may be) by emphasizing the “all natural” element of their formulas, and failing to properly educate their customers.”

You can’t read through the Rand Report commissioned by the FDA without being struck by the number of adverse events that were likely preventable.  Many of the people who collapsed had pre-existing health conditions that warranted caution; or else did some fairly stupid things (see the Bechler case highlighted in Paul’s review).  In an ideal world, the ephedra ban need never have happened. 

This brings us back to the point: “natural” does not mean “safe” or “healthy” by any means.  Herbs are pharmacologically complex, and – as the ephedra example demonstrates – the potential for undesirable side effects exists.  Thus, you should always know what you’re putting into your mouth and not be lulled into a false sense of security by the phrase “all natural” in an ad.  Mother Nature can be a bitch sometimes.

Author: elissa

Elissa is a former research associate with the University of California at Davis, and the author/co-author of over a dozen articles published in scientific journals. Currently a freelance writer and researcher, Elissa brings her multidisciplinary education and training to her writing on nutrition and supplements.

4 Comments

  1. Great Points!

    Adding to your point – “natural does not mean healthy”

    I’m sure we have all noticed in the “organic or natural” section of the grocery store, that there is a huge proliferation of “natural” and “organic” cookies, cakes, chips, etc.

    The implication is that if something is natural or organic its healthy for you! Hold on a second… The last time I checked “organic cane sugar” and “organic canola oil” is still sugar and oil at 4cal/g and 9cal/g. Besides these snacks are supposed to be treats – as in once in awhile – so if you’re only eating these once in awhile, does it warrant spending the premium? But wait; it’s organic so, it’s healthy for me!” Ahhh the beauty of food marketing eh!

    Next thing you know they will market organic cigarettes – heck if they’re organic they gotta be healthy right! I’m going to rush right out and pick me up a carton and smoke my way to health!!

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  2. As a small manufacturer of body care products, what shocks me is the chain of Whole Foods stores which have very strict guideline about what body care products they carry. They allow in only body care products formulated with “natural” preservatives. The problem is, no such preservative exists – at least none which are effective. My guess is a) all the body products are thrown out after 2-4 weeks when they go rancid or b)manufactures are “playing the game” and deliberately altering ingredient lists to hide controversial preservatives (full disclosure rules currently do not exist in our unregulated market)

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  3. I’m not familiar with Whole Foods’ policies (believe it or not, I’ve never lived in an area with one around)…but I’m guessing they’re referring to various “natural” antioxidants and/or antioxidant sources that might slow the oxidation of oils used in lotions and creams (i.e., vitamin E, rosemary extract). Likewise, partial preservation via pH manipulation (such as with citric acid), control of water activity (glycerin/glycerol), or chelation (ferulic acid) could be considered “natural” – as is alcohol (used in toners/astringents).

    But it’s a silly policy: as noted, there’s nothing intrinsically “good” about natural…likewise, there’s nothing intrinsically “bad” about artificial (or synthetic) – judgements should be made on the specific compounds in question and their applications.

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