What's Natural?

My Generation

Just because something's natural, it doesn't mean it's good for you.

Published on: April 5, 2011

There are days when I get frustrated about the way words are taken over and misused. Like sustainable. And natural. And industrial. I have argued this before, but I think when a word is used so broadly for so many purposes – and to advance so many agendas – it loses both meaning and effectiveness. Exhibit A, again: sustainable.

So it did my heart good to see a little treatise from a heart doctor regarding natural and artificial. Because if there's anything that's popular these days, it's eating "naturally." Whatever that means. (And no, Suzanne Somers shouldn't get to define it.)

Yet today, food marketers are selling products based on their "natural" ingredients. No longer is it enough to be healthy. Now it has to be natural. It's a marketing ploy. The implication of course is that natural is safer than artificial. Artificial ingredients are supposed to cause cancer, hyperactive kids, depression, calf scours, global warming and tsunamis, just to name a few.

But is "natural" really better? Let's take coumarin, calamus oil and ephedra.

All are natural and all have been banned by the FDA. Coumarin was used in vanilla flavorings until the FDA banned it in 1978. Coumarin is a natural toxin found in many plants and is moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. Today, it's used as a rat poison and to make an anticoagulant drug. The FDA banned calamus oil in 1968 because it was found to be carcinogenic when ingested by mouth. And remember ephedra? Ephedra is a natural herb that was hugely popular among my college girlfriends in the mid-'90s for weight loss. The FDA banned it in 2004 due to adverse health effects and possible deaths.

Three natural products, none of them safe to consume in food. And number four: aflatoxin. Farmers know all about aflatoxin. It's a naturally occurring toxin produced by a fungus, and it's carcinogenic in high amounts.

Certainly, I am all for eating fresh food, and food that's processed as minimally as possible. Of course, that is a challenge in January in Illinois, but we do our best. But let's not call that natural.

Remind your non-farm friends the next time they talk about eating "naturally": natural doesn't mean safe.