Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Natural Logic of Health Care

By Wendy Daniels

It’s time to debunk the “natural is healthy and good and non-natural is unhealthy and bad” myth.

As I opened a loaf of bread today to make my lunchtime sandwich, I noticed a label: “There’s no artificial colours or flavours and no E-numbers in our bread”. The bread manufacturer clearly wants me to know that there are no unnatural substances in their bread. By assuring me that these things are lacking, they are telling me that their product is natural and therefore, by implication, good for me. They tell me this because they think I want to know it, and they think I want to know it because they understand that consumers associate natural with being good and healthy, and non-natural or artificial with being bad or unhealthy.

The idea that “natural” is good for us is all-pervasive. It can be found in advertising everywhere, from toiletries and cosmetics to cleaning products and food items. Presumably it’s what also underpins the thinking behind naturopathy – nature’s natural remedies must be good for us. Why? Because they are natural!

But is this entrenched notion a fallacy? Is it reasonable to assume that natural products, by virtue of their naturalness, are necessarily healthier and better for us? You can consider this idea logically using this well-known example of deductive reasoning:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.

Premise 2: Socrates is a man.

Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

If the first premise is correct and the second premise is correct, it follows that the conclusion is correct. In this case, both the first and second premises are correct, which means that the conclusion is as well, making the argument both sound and valid.

In the case of the “natural is healthy and good for you” argument, the premises and conclusion can be substituted as follows:

Premise 1: Natural is healthy and good for you.

Premise 2: Arsenic is natural.

Premise 3: Therefore, arsenic is good for you.

The second premise is correct – arsenic is indeed natural – but the conclusion that arsenic is good for you is obviously false because it very clearly is not. What this logically means is that the first premise – natural is healthy and good for you – must be false.

When you break it down like this, the argument is so obviously flawed that it beggars belief as to why so many people really believe that “natural” equals healthy and good. Of course, arsenic is an extreme example, but logically this argument applies to anything natural, including the many herbs and other plants offered as ingredients in CAM medicines.

What this argument shows is that natural substances are not necessarily always healthy or good, but it does not preclude the possibility that some natural substances may be both healthy and good.

The problem, however, is that once an idea becomes firmly entrenched in the public mind-set, people cease questioning; it’s just accepted as a given. Association plays a large part, too, with “natural” being immediately associated with desirable and attractive images of scenery, outdoor recreation, vegetable gardens and much else.

Unfortunately, the idea that natural is always healthy and therefore safe is fast becoming regarded as an absolute truth. Many consumers don’t bother questioning it; they just assume that because something is natural it must be beneficial for them.

But when it comes to medicines, the important questions that need to be asked have nothing to do with whether a product is natural. What matters is whether the medicine works and whether it’s safe. The issue of whether the product is natural is neither here nor there, because if you are being treated with a product that has been demonstrated to be efficacious and has an acceptable safety profile, whether or not it’s natural is not something that even needs to be asked and is an irrelevant description; it’s a complete furphy.

It’s time to debunk the “natural is healthy and good and non-natural is unhealthy and bad” myth. Marketers are aware that “naturalness” is a marketable commodity and that the added “bonus” of providing consumers with a “natural” product is a ploy to entice them to buy. It’s a savvy ploy, though, because this “natural” feature almost certainly allows them to charge more!

Wendy Daniels is a freelance medical and health writer. She has also worked as a radiation therapist in the UK and Australia.