Post No.: 0176
A lot of people hold dearly onto the over-generalised belief that ‘natural is always best’ for our health and that anything that isn’t considered natural is bad or at least cannot be as good as natural alternatives. This is true in many or most cases but it’s often a rule of thumb that goes too far when people blindly trust marketing spiels and bumfs.
As the title of this post suggests – poo is natural. 100% natural even! (So stick that on the daily package you post in the bathroom(!)) Other natural substances include pee, opium, arsenic, asbestos, methane, insect eggs, viruses, snake venom and cyanide, and indeed most common forms of sugar and fat. Some of the above examples also demonstrate that not all natural substances are good for the environment either.
The way many consumers have crudely generalised and believe that all artificial additives are bad or that ‘natural is always better’ has led to manufacturers including things like food colourings that are made from dead beetles because this way they can use the term ‘100% natural’ on their labels – because insects are natural. (The red colour extracted from cochineal bugs is safe for consumption in this case though, and ‘disgusting’ shouldn’t be stuff that likely won’t harm you but stuff that likely will. However, if you’re vegan then you’ll need to be aware of this.)
We tend to think things that go on or into our bodies ought to be natural. There’s also an oversimplified interpretation that our bodies functioned best in ancestral times with ancestral diets and lifestyles, as in raw food diets, no vaccines and the like. But over-extrapolation or over-generalisation is a symptom of a lack of a deep or refined enough understanding e.g. the belief that ‘all fat is bad’ (but our brains are mostly made of fat), ‘raw is always better’ (but one of the greatest advances of the human species was the ability to make fires and cook in order to make digestion less time-consuming, as well as enabling more nutrients to become bioavailable or utilised), or indeed ‘natural is always good’. ‘Old’ ways don’t necessarily mean ‘better’ ways.
Mother Nature kills too, and why should you blindly trust that Mother Nature is on your side rather than the bacteria’s, the viruses’ or the hungry lion’s?! We pasteurise milk to get rid of listeria, which can be a natural bacteria found in raw milk, for example, in order to protect our health. It’s not natural to perform a heart transplant on someone who is dying from a heart defect. It’s natural for them to die. But there’s something called civilisational and intellectual progress, which in part is about controlling nature to a degree to our advantage and about educating and advancing us to something greater than Palaeolithic. Jet lag shows that our bodies never evolved for travelling around the world so fast – so people who claim that humans should eat and behave like cavepeople did since that’s the environment human bodies and minds evolved optimally for, maybe shouldn’t travel on any long haul flights?
So it’s far more nuanced than ‘only natural will do’, or ‘let’s ignore nature’ at the other extreme. For example, improved sanitation is in large part a reason why life expectancies have increased since industrialisation, but research is strongly suggesting that a hyper-clean home environment where every surface is sterilised to the extreme is not optimal for our health either and may be a cause in the rise in the number of cases of asthma and allergies. Not all bacteria are bad (Post No.: 0137 explains more about this), and some natural things cause allergies too, including cats. (Sorry about that. Female cats apparently aren’t as bad though – meow.)
Some people assume too much by appearances too e.g. something in a powder, pill or capsule form means ‘a drug’ because many drugs do come in these forms. Does that make ground wheat flour a drug?! We will judge what we don’t understand by its appearances and according to generalisations (over)extrapolated from what we do understand, or think we understand.
I’m not persuading nor dissuading the consumption of whey protein supplements but these frequently come in powder form, and are often used by gym-goers who want to build larger muscles, but this doesn’t make it a drug. There used to be some fuzzy fear spread by some people when these supplements first hit the market but whey is just a natural by-product of cheese-making, dried and ground into a powder. (I will note though that most gym-goers don’t need to take protein supplements at all because the rest of their diet is adequate. And protein that isn’t used to repair or build muscles will count as calories (gram-for-gram, protein is just as calorie-dense as carbohydrate sources) hence one will put on stored fat and increase other health risks if one consumes too much protein.) On the other hand, even though it’s not a drug, it doesn’t mean that it’s not therefore regulated for safety – it’s regulated as a food product even though it’s not regulated as stringently as a drug (because it’s not a drug). Plus something that is natural doesn’t necessarily make it not a drug either (e.g. morphine is natural and is a commonly used drug for analgesia).
The thing is, most if not all food ingredients are derived, in one way or another, from nature anyway, but just distilled to a greater purity, like curds and whey are separated from milk to make cheese. Cheese, as we buy it in the shops, does not come straight from nature. Bread and pasta, as other examples, are processed foods too and don’t grow as they are on trees. So just because something is processed in a lab or elsewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t derived from natural sources (e.g. quinine from cinchona trees to treat malaria); and although processed foods are generally less healthful than unprocessed foods, it does depend on the amount of processing and what kind of processes are specifically involved in making a particular product – hence we need to treat things on a case-by-case basis, as well as look at the holistic balance of our overall diet rather than fixate too much on one detail or thing.
Some people say that they care about eating natural whenever they can – yet they consume lots of products with hidden refined sugars and drink alcohol regularly, as if these grow from the soil or are collected from a spring as they are(!) Well, refined sugar and alcohol ultimately come from natural sources that are processed, refined or otherwise manipulated into their final form – but so does ultimately anything else one can imagine! Everything started from nature or naturally-found substances ultimately – from stars if you will. Everything is made from chemicals. So where does one draw the line regarding the level of processing allowed? It can be a line-drawing problem because if we deem termite mounds or beaver dams as natural then why aren’t human-built cities or dams too? Humans are natural, just like termites and beavers, so why isn’t everything that humans create considered natural too rather than artificial?
So the actual healthy view is to not bother with the crude heuristic that ‘natural is always good for us and processed is always bad for us’ because this isn’t true e.g. cannabis is bad for us or at least not good or necessary for us (no healthy person needs cannabis in order to be as healthy and fit as they can be) and bread and pasta aren’t inherently bad for us and can be good for us. Assess every product on an individual basis, take yourself as an individual (e.g. you may not have the same food intolerances as those who genuinely do) and don’t have too much of anything (and how much is ‘too much’ needs to be considered on an individual basis, in conjunction with all the other things one consumes, too). Don’t subscribe to overly simple rules (often promoted by some magazines, tabloids and social media influencers) because they are at the root of so much that’s actually unhealthy or unnecessary (e.g. certain crash or fad diets). Accept the complexity of reality, or if you want a generalisation that’s still standing up to scrutiny – seek balance, variety and moderation.
All this is not to vilify nature! Nature is overall our friend and we must live more in harmony with it. This is all just to readdress some myths and over-generalisations that many people who know a little but not enough about natural and synthetic/artificial products believe. Simple rules are for simple people (there, I said it!)
It’s also not to therefore say that artificial additives are to be blindly trusted either; although you don’t need to blindly trust them because artificial additives are highly regulated in most markets (more so than organic or natural substances), thus the risks are assessed. This includes genetically-modified (GM) crops too. And note, what is an ‘organic’ or at least ‘not-messed-around-other-than-by-nature’ fruit or vegetable like an orange carrot for example? Virtually all modern crops were derived from agriculture and selective breeding for thousands of years for qualities like better yield, disease-resistance and/or nutrition. But, all else being equal, there’s nothing wrong with better yield, disease-resistance and/or nutrition. (Carrots were selectively-bred to be orange by the Dutch.)
The bottom line is to take everything on a case-by-case basis, research deeply to find the facts, and don’t just look at the true positives (the natural things that are good) and true negatives (the artificial things that are bad) but also the false positives (the natural things that aren’t actually good) and false negatives (the artificial things that aren’t actually bad).
Sometimes you cannot blame marketing departments because if over-simple beliefs didn’t work on so many consumers then they wouldn’t continue exploiting these beliefs. In fact, words like ‘natural’, ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ are currently unregulated in most parts of the world regarding most kinds of products, so seeing these words on product labels can mean anything! It therefore helps to personally be a wiser consumer and to read the ingredients lists on the back. Part of the purpose of this blog is to try to rebalance some of the **** that’s on the Internet and perpetuated by the general media. It’s a battle against a tsunami but if Furrywisepuppy and I can enlighten or open your mind in any way then it’s worth it.