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When Natural isn't Better

The word “natural” has gotten out of hand. In fact, it’s become a downright misnomer (a name used incorrectly). In the health business we overuse the term to emphasize the perceived goodness or purity of something, like a dietary supplement or a food product. And it certainly adds marketing value to our buying and selling activity. NATURAL SELLS. But what does the word natural actually mean, and if something does qualify as natural, does that imply without dispute that it’s absolutely safe and beneficial for everyone under all conditions?

The Oxford dictionary defines natural as something existing in or caused by nature, as in wild or uncultivated, not artificial, like a hurricane or an earthquake. Artificial is defined as anything produced by human art or effort rather than originating naturally, like modern transport or emergency medical care. But if humanity is a product of nature, doesn’t that mean that anything we produce (such as a new element or a skyscraper) is an extension of nature and therefore natural?

Is the common white potato natural? Well yes, it would seem to qualify. It’s a starchy plant among 150 varieties created by nature, not by men. But what if it’s grown in soil fertilized with man-made chemicals or sprayed with pesticides. What if its DNA is altered through genetic engineering? And where did the first potato come from? If it isn’t grown in its Peruvian-Bolivian homeland, is it now artificial if grown in Ireland by reason of unnatural transport? Pineapple for example, isn’t a native of Hawaii. It was imported from the West Indies by foreigners for the sole purpose of exportation.

Does cultivation, that unique function of recent civilization, suddenly turn something natural into something “un” natural, even if it’s grown organically? When does natural change into artificial, and if the legal definition of natural is “excipients derived from the plant earth”, when does artificial become natural? Who determines the gray area between the black and white, between what is natural and what is not?

Back to Solanum tuberosum, the lowly potato. When baked, this innocent looking lump of carbohydrate sports a glycemic index (95) higher than white table sugar (75). Not cool if you’re insulin resistant or fighting the battle of the bulge. It’s also a nasty nightshade, like tomatoes, red & green peppers, eggplant, paprika and tobacco. Nightshade vegetables contain a “natural chemical” called solanine, a glycoalkaloid that can aggravate joint pain or even induce an anaphylactic life-threatening reaction in those who are ultra-sensitive. I love that term natural chemical.

New varieties of potatoes, such as Norgold Russet, Penobscot and Shurchip are much lower in solanine. But these aren’t natural. They’ve been groomed and manipulated through hybridism for obvious reasons, just like seedless grapes. Are kiwi’s grown in Canadian greenhouses natural? Is the floor you’re standing on natural? How about your bicycle, your last meal or this magazine. The real question is does it have value?

So what about the city folk who dream of living off the land? Well, to do that right you’d have to live in nature without anything artificial. I mean no technology, no tools, no refrigeration, no plumbing, no TV, no books, no radio, no phone, no first aid kit, no cars, no nothing except what you could hunt, gather and find using sticks and your own two feet. Sounds good for a holiday, but get real. Nature is awesome and beautiful to behold, but she is incredibly brutal. Eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest. High infant mortality. Just read Fatu-Hiva by the great Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. His Back to Nature idealistic dream of living in tropical paradise was crushed by insect infestation, tribal warfare, fever and injury. I think our whole perception of nature is distorted.

Here’s why. Take any vitamin product off the shelf of your store and empty a few of the tablets or capsules out onto the counter. Come on, go ahead. Look closely at them. Hold them in your hand. Do you really think those little pills grow on trees? Of course not! Then where do they come from? How are they made? I bet you don’t know. I bet you don’t know because no one has ever told you. Or perhaps you don’t want to know, especially if you’re a “naturalist”. Can you see yourself selling something artificial made with chemicals? No way. The vitamins YOU take are NATURAL.

Now look at the Name Brand on the label of the bottle. Whatever it is, that company didn’t make the product. They may have manufactured the capsule or tablet, but they didn’t make the raw material that went into the tablet or capsule. The Name Brand manufacturers that you recognize don’t make anything from scratch. They buy their raw materials in bulk from companies you most likely have never even heard of. And that world isn’t natural, it’s chemical, it’s pharmaceutical and it’s very competitive.

Have you ever seen vitamin E extracted from soybean oil with your own eyes? Have you watched cornstarch chemically converted into pure ascorbic acid, and then renatured with a pinch of rosehips? Have you seen whey subjected to the process of ion-exchange or creatine precipitated from sarcosine and cyanamide. I doubt it. But I do know one thing for sure. You’re dispensing supplements made by an industry you’ve been conditioned to think of as an enemy. The very group you may have criticized are the same ones who make the products you buy and sell and most likely use yourself. Have I blown your mind or shattered your paradigm? Good.

Life is a symphony of organic and inorganic chemistry. A balance between order and chaos. Trillions of cells interacting constantly with thousands of chemicals derived from both nature and human intervention, as if to imply the two are somehow distinct or inseparable. Air pollution is bad, but which is worse, volcanic ash in Indonesia or automobile exhaust in Toronto? On a planetary scale, Nature is by far our chief mortal enemy. She’s the primary cause of oxidation, radiation and gravity, the very catabolic forces that grind each and every one of us to pulp over a lifetime, regardless of environmental toxicity. Yes, living in the purest and most serene natural setting may help delay the process and there is definite value in simplicity, but Nature is still supreme.

NATURAL might sell, but it’s a term that actually misrepresents our industry. What does natural mean to you? A certain food might be natural, meaning it’s whole, intact, unrefined and undisturbed, but depending on your blood type, ethnic origin, somatotype, gland dominance, digestive capacity and cellular genetics, it might be toxic. Are the lectins in soy, the psoralens in parsnip, the oxalic acid in spinach, the gluten in wheat or the thioglucosides in cabbage causing your health problems? And just because something is chemically manufactured, like the sweetener acesulfame-potassium, doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad, especially when compared to sucrose, corn syrup or fructose. It fact, for the masses for now, I think it’s a much better alternative.

What’s important is function, quality of life and outcome. Factors you can measure. Functional medicine is dedicated to health and safety. It measures the effect of any substance, drug, chemical or nutrient on the organism and passes judgment based on evidence, not prejudice or the golden words of some misguided soothsayer. What matters is whether the treatment, process, drug, supplement or food in question is harmful or beneficial as determined by objective science and observation, not whether it’s natural or chemical. Our whole world is practically artificial.

My life and the lives of countless others have improved immensely by incorporating controlled exercise and dietary supplements, neither of which in essence are “natural”. When athletes on a high-quality, whole food diet train to maximize strength, body composition and performance, they can’t compete with others who do the same but who also take creatine, whey protein, glutamine, HMB and mixed antioxidants. This approach leads to better health without evidence of harm or damage.

To be well in this world we’ve got to synthesize health and come to terms with convention and reality. In fact, when left to our natural instinct without financial limitation, most of us would choose by default a lifestyle incongruent with optimum health. So weigh the facts, consider the alternatives, understand the difference between what is relative and absolute, and learn to make practical, functional choices. Instead of natural, think “what is best for me right now under these conditions”.

"As he headed back to the comfort and security of civilization, Thor himself discovered that the only place where it is possible to find nature as it always was, was within himself."