Natural. It is a wonderful world that means everything and simultaneously nothing at the same time. Everywhere you turn, every brand is screaming about how natural they are. The word ‘’Natural’’ is often used as a marketing tool to create the illusion of healthy. We are now living in a society where people are actually trying to make a conscious effort to eat healthy. The worst part is how badly we want to believe it. I routinely catch myself justifying an obviously unwise choice because it contains “natural” ingredients, and I occasionally stick my head in the sand and let myself feel slightly less bad about the purchase because of this simple, misunderstood, statement.
The real trouble is… the consumer definition of natural and the industry definition of natural are two very different things.
How the consumer reads “natural ingredients”: This is something that is healthy and safe, it comes from food, there are no chemicals involved, it is no different than eating the food itself”.
In my experience, how natural health product (NHP) companies define “natural”: pretty much anything derived from “nature”.
Is there an inherent problem with the NHP definition of natural? Not at all.
The problem arises because the NHP industry never stopped to tell the consumer that some of their assumptions about “natural” could be entirely incorrect. So, I am going to try to correct some of those misconceptions. Below is a list of things that the designation “natural” DOES NOT MEAN.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN organic and/or non-GMO. These are more specific designations and have more stringent requirements, depending on who the certifying body is.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN healthy. There are plenty of natural products out there that aren’t really any good for you. A great example of this: stimulant based weight loss supplements that contain all natural ingredients. News flash: caffeine is considered a natural ingredient, but crushing caffeine pills to lose weight is not generally considered healthy.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN safe. This is a HUGE misconception that can land someone in the hospital. Many consumers assume that containing all natural ingredients means that, worst case scenario, a NHP just won’t be effective. Remember, “natural” means something derived from nature. Many of the products that boast all natural ingredients contain potent extracts. So be aware.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN side effect free. This little tidbit ties in with the previous statement. Some active ingredients do have side effects and can interact with various drugs, especially if dosing is not followed correctly. In addition, many drug-NHP interactions are not yet known so if you rely on a pharmaceutical for your wellbeing, it is always best to discuss any NHPs with your doctor.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN “I can take as much as I want”. NHPs have a dosage for a reason. Would you decide to take 3-4x the dose of a painkiller? Likely not, so why would this cross your mind with your pre-workout blend? Correct dosing is critical not only to the efficacy of the product, but to its safety as well.
Natural DOES NOT MEAN unprocessed. Many natural health ingredients are processed. These ingredients are often extracts from a food (or other “natural” source). Is this a bad thing? Not at all, as long as you understand what you are taking. The advantage to taking an extract is the potency. Many foods contain wonderful active ingredients that are extremely beneficial to your health, but in such low doses that you would need to eat tons and tons of a food to get the desired effect. Extracts provide a realistic way to get these active ingredients at effective levels. The flip side is that while you may never be able to consume enough of a specific food to cause problems, you can consume enough of an extract to cause an issue.
Overall, natural products can be a great tool (used TOGETHER with proper nutrition and exercise) to help you achieve your fitness and wellness goals, but you need to be clear on what you are taking. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer to ask questions and search until you find reputable sources telling you the same information.
The Health Canada Website is a great resource for products sold in Canada, the ingredients that go into them as well any adverse events or known NHP-drug interactions. Here is the link to the main page:
A little disclaimer: I feel it is necessary to disclose to everyone that I own a supplement company. I have an undergraduate degree in Biological science and a Masters degree in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. I was raised on “traditional” science. I generally feel like a fish out of water in this industry and am frequently annoyed by most things I read in the media, both for and against natural health products (NHPs). The amount of misinformation is absolutely staggering.
I am not a doctor or health practitioner, I simply want to pass on the knowledge I have gained while working in this industry. These are simply my opinions of how you, the consumer, can navigate natural health products to make an informed decision as to if they are right or could be beneficial for you. I will write a series on this important topic, so stay tuned!