Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My Chemical Romance: Natural Is Not Always Better

The Free Dictionary defines ‘chemical’ as “a substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process”. However, based on the word’s usage by many people such as health bloggers and environmentalists, it has become synonymous with “unnatural”, “additive”, “unhealthy” and most simply, “bad”.

The food industry today loves to advertise products as being “natural” with “no added chemicals”. This is especially true for the organic food industry, whose fearmongering about toxins in everything has eeven expanded to non-edible products! There is no clear standard for what constitutes a toxin however, and any molecular compound whether naturally-existing or artificial is by definition a chemical. The ambiguity of terms such as “natural” and “toxins” allows health food peddlers to define these words as best promotes their products.  The organic and homeopathic industries vilify scientifically-validated biomedical achievements such as vaccines and GMOs (genetically-modified foods, see my blog post on GMOs for more details) for containing potentially dangerous “toxins”. Ironically, organic food often contains higher incidences of ACTUAL biological toxins and pathogens from increased bacterial and fungal load due to their proudly-advertised natural farming practices. Additionally, organic farming produces substantial environmental pollution that can be more damaging than traditional means.

There are more obvious examples of the natural=good fallacy, of course. Arsenic is a basic element of the period table but is extremely toxic, as are many other naturally-occurring molecules such as cyanide, bacterial toxins, snake venom, and various plant secretions.  In contrast, synthetic forms of antibiotics and hormones such as insulin have helped millions of lives.
Whether artificial or natural, while somewhat oversimplified the old saying holds true that “the poison is in the dose”. Animal studies demonstrating toxicity of various compounds often use doses magnitudes higher than would ever be ingested by humans, clouding interpretation of toxicity studies. Importantly, if not obvious, the toxicity of a given chemical is the same whether natural or synthetic. As a somewhat humorous example, the chemical dioxin is a feared industrial contaminant due to its carcinogenic properties, while similar chemicals found in natural foods such as cooked steak, broccoli and cabbage have the same mechanism of action with a potentially higher effective dose!

Clearly, the relative safety and efficacy of a compound cannot be determined merely by its origin. Consumers must consider the available scientific data – and not simply the name – when evaluating the health effects of various substances. My sentiments are echoed by chemist Dr. Joe Schwartz in the video below:

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