Natural (non)remedies

By Matthew Feeg

Modern advertisers frequently claim that their herbal remedies are “all natural” or “contain all natural ingredients.” But what do these claims really mean? When we want to know this, we must find a way to define the word ‘natural.’ In the sense that the marketers want to use it, it seems to mean “not artificial” or “sourced from nature.” When we want to call something artificial, we must mean that it was created by humans and does not occur in nature.

The term ‘artificial,’ being separate from the natural world, implies artificiality is detrimental to our health. The implied claims about natural products is that they are healthier, better for you and safer simply because they are natural. Being natural is just a shorthand way of saying “not made by humans.” But from this it does not follow that any such thing would be healthier, safer or better for you. Consider arsenic: it is highly toxic in small doses, and yet it occurs in nature in mineral form. Many things in nature are not healthier for you, indeed, they are downright dangerous!

Nowhere do appeals to natural occur more frequently than in herbal remedy advertisements and on product labels. When considering a purchase of such items, it makes sense for the consumer to carefully and critically analyse the claims made about the product. Many products use the natural claim as a selling point — don’t be fooled by this empty claim. Be aware in general of such remedies as they are often untested (or tested with the most shoddy, poorly controlled and methodologically unsound clinical trials). As of right now, these remedies are governed under the Natural Health Product Regulation act, which is odd because the claims they make should merit their inclusion in the much more strict Food and Drug Act. The failure of the government to properly regulate this industry means that some herbal remedies can vary in purity and dose strength. To quote from the Health Canada website: “Because Health Canada has not yet evaluated all natural health products currently on the market, products with exemption numbers can also legally be sold in Canada.” Any herbal remedy that may have been tested for quality (not the same as efficacy) can be legally sold without adequate testing. Can this really mean the natural product is healthier than an ‘artificial,’ prescription drug?

A further caution is outlined on the Health Canada website under the Risks of Natural Health Products section: “interaction with prescription drugs or other natural health products.” Because all herbal remedies are available over the counter there is a risk that they may interact with detrimental effects when mixed with prescription drugs or other herbal remedies the consumer is already taking. The website rightly advises that anyone wishing to use herbal remedies consult with their physician before doing so.

But in the end, wouldn’t it just be better to include herbal remedies in the Food and Drug Act and administer them by prescription only? Unless of course the industry knows that herbal remedy efficacy is not as good as medical grade pharmaceuticals and thus herbs could not compete with prescription drugs in the same market.