Artificial vs. Natural Wars

"All-Natural!”

"No Artificial Colors or Flavors!"

"No Harsh Chemicals!"

...so reads the labels of many foods marketed towards your health and well-being.  The implication, of course, is that natural food ingredients are inherently safer than artificial ingredients.  Artificial ingredients are supposed to be bad for us.  They are supposed to cause cancer, and headaches, and hyperactivity in kids, and depression, and unemployment, and poverty, and traffic jams, and Paris Hilton.

OK, maybe they’re not that bad, but you get the idea.  Natural ingredients are supposed to be safer, and healthier.  We eat an “all-natural” product and we feel good and confident that we are doing something healthy for us.  Natural ingredients are supposed to make us glow and bring happy joyful faces to all of the world and an end to all suffering and make dogs and cats live together.

 

OK, again I’m exaggerating but I’m sure you get the point.  Natural is better….right?

Right?

Here’s a list of some natural substances that people have consumed in the past.

Coumarin

Calamus Oil

Ephedra

What do these natural substances all have in common?

They have all been banned from the market by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for being unsafe for humans and are not legal as food ingredients.

Coumarin used to be found in many artificial vanilla flavorings until the FDA banned it in 1978.  While coumarin was found in artificial vanilla, the substance itself is quite natural.  It is a natural toxin found in many plants, particularly tonka beans and bison grass.  Coumarin is moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys.  In fact, it is used as a rat poison.  It is also used to make the drug warfarin (Coumadin), an anticoagulant drug (it helps stop blood clots).

 

Calamus oil, which is a natural oil that comes from the Calamus plant, was banned as a food additive by the FDA in 1968.  It was banned because it was found to be a carcinogen (a cancer causing agent) when ingested by mouth.

Ephedra, a natural herb used for weight loss, was banned by the FDA in 2004 because of accumulating evidence of adverse health effects and possible deaths due to the stimulant.

 

The point is that all of these products are “natural” products, yet are not safe to consume.  There are many other things found in nature that are also not safe to consume.  For example, aflatoxin is a naturally occurring toxin produced by a fungus.  It is known to be toxic and carcinogenic in high amounts.  All commercial peanut butter has minute quantities of aflatoxin, but not in amounts that are high enough to be harmful.

Ironically, some artificial food additives may in fact be safer than some natural food additives, simply because artificial additives must go through very stringent testing to be approved for use.  For example, many of the artificial sweeteners on the market went through over 100 studies each to be approved.  These studies covered everything from how the sweetener is metabolized by the body to whether it could cause cancer to what the effects on the reproductive system would be.

Also, what exactly is a “natural” ingredient?  What separates “artificial” from “natural” ingredients?  If you think about it, there really is no clear cut way to determine this.  One way to define “natural” is any product that would appear on its own without human intervention.  Based on this definition, stevioside, a popular "natural" sweetener, could not be classified as natural, since it requires human intervention to extract it from the stevia herb.  Another way to define a “natural” product is one that is made from natural ingredients that exist on their own, but the product itself would not exist on its own without human intervention.  By this definition, cake is a natural product.  While cake does not exist on its own in nature, it is made from ingredients that do exist on their own (sugar, eggs, etc.).  However, by this definition, aspartame (Nutrasweet) is also a natural product.  Aspartame is created by combining two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methanol, all of which are found naturally in the foods we eat.  Yet many people consider aspartame as “artificial.”

When it comes to flavorings, the FDA defines “natural flavor” as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”  Any other flavor added on top of that is considered artificial.  However, flavors (artificial or natural) are made by scientists in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create the flavorings.  So, again, the line between “artificial” and “natural” is not distinct.  Gary Reineccius, a professor in Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, once said “The distinction in flavorings – natural versus artificial – comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural.  Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized….consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings.  But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”

Also, if you look at an ingredient list, would you even be able to tell what was natural and what was artificial?  Let’s take a bar of soap, for example. 

 

The ingredients for this bar of soap might read:

Olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, water, sodium hydroxide”

If you saw this list of ingredients, you would think that this product is mostly natural.  You then look at the ingredients for another bar of soap, and they read:

Sodium olivate, sodium palmitate, sodium cocoate, glycerine”

Looking at this list, you might think that this product is mostly artificial.  However, these are the exact same ingredients as in the other bar of soap!!!!!   It’s like labeling something as “water”, or labeling something as “dihydrogen monoxide (H2O)”.  They’re the same thing.

The take-home message is this:  don’t assume that natural ingredients are inherently better than artificial ingredients in regards to health.  Rather than worrying about whether an ingredient is natural or artificial, you should worry about its safety record and whether it’s been thoroughly tested.  The line between what is artificial and what is natural is more like a fuzzy haze than a line anyway.

 P.S.  I can already sense a bunch of strawmen coming my way, including claims that I'm somehow insinuating that ALL artificial or synthetic products are perfectly safe in any amount.  I'm not saying that.  For example, there is plenty of evidence that industrial fats (like partially hydrogenated fats) or highly processed foods, when consumed in high amounts, can contribute to health problems.  But evidence is the key word here.  My point is, whether something is artificial or natural is not evidence of its safety.  You need to look at what the scientific research indicates.


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Selena Cristobal
Selena Cristobal
7 years ago

Thanks for the article! it really helped in my studies for my senior project

HundredPercentNaturalDung
HundredPercentNaturalDung
8 years ago

Artifical additives are safer because they’re under “Strict Control”(TM)? LOL! Don’t make my sandals laugh! Those producers care *jack shit* about what they release, as long as its cheap to make, sells well, and generates revenue. And all those checks… with the right money, can be easily (shhhhh… don’t tell anyone) bypassed. (*wink*, *wink*) with *right* people. The best food is what you see and make yourself (that is, if you can prepare it well, and your hands grow out of the right place instead out of your ass).

Toby, Does P90X Work
8 years ago

Hi James, The the two ingredients lists for the same bar of soap is a great thought provoker. Thanks. Also, you are right to describe the difference between the two categories as being divided by a “fuzzy haze” rather than a line. Although I still feel it is very important to gravitate towards not only the word Natural, but also Whole Food. I think that when it comes to the area of Whole Food, surely these foods are always natural and always healthy… existing on a kind of pure list? Also, I have read somewhere that we don’t decompose as… Read more »

Mark
Mark
10 years ago

Just found this site. So not only do you have one of the best Weight Loss sites on the net but another great one dealing with health issues, it’s my lucky day! From your writing I can tell you probably follow/have followed the skeptic scene to some extent e.g.the writing of Carl Sagan, James Randi, Michael Shermer etc.? A great book on Alternative Medicine I would recommend is Trick or Treatment by Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh (who recently was the subject of a high profile libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association) It summarises all the… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
10 years ago

Great post James. I think it is very important that folks understand that just because a product boasts “natural ingredients” doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Isn’t cocaine an all natural? There are so many false assumptions that by eating some “all natural”, “diet”, “fat free” or “gluten free” crap you are eating something “healthy”. Leave it up to brilliant marketing to influence people to get fatter and sicker while spending money on stuff they think is making them healthy.

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

Great article.

Somehow this reminds me of the HFCS deal.

jamie hale
10 years ago

A subject I love to discuss. In fact, I just posted some links on Jp Fitness Forum

Organic Food: The Real Story
http://maxcondition.com/page.php?148

Organic Pesiticides: Friend or Foe?
http://maxcondition.com/news.php?item.71

Organic, Really Safer?
http://maxcondition.com/news.php?item.59

Environmentalists and Natural Foods
http://maxcondition.com/news.php?10.5

The idea that All-Natural is always safer than artificial is false, and is often used as a rhetorical device in an effort to sale products.

Patrick N.
Patrick N.
10 years ago

Hi James, great post by the way. I have a small question. What is your opinion on Ephedrine HCL ? You said there was evidence that ephedra could be a problem. Do you believe the same thing about Ephedrine HCL?

Thanks,

Patrick

Patrick N.
Patrick N.
10 years ago
Reply to  James Krieger

Thank you for your prompt and very informative reply.

Michael Goode
Michael Goode
10 years ago

Ha! I knew cake was natural.

Another great post. I was reading about MSG today and I learned that it is basically natural … it is simply the sodium salt of glatamic acid, which naturally occurs in many natural foods and is a neurotransmitter. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutamic_acid

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