Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The "Natural" Trap

This is one of those areas that I've been hearing a great deal lately, and I think there's no end to the degree to which I find this brand of mythology annoying.  It's particularly funny because just about everybody "knows" it to be true, and this most disappointingly includes those who have the background knowledge which indicates that they should know better.  It's the fallacy of believing that "natural" products are invariably better than "artificial" ones.  I wish I had a rope to tie people down to a desk and force them to read scientific papers and watch countless videos on biochemistry until they are stripped of this nonsense.

It's darn near impossible these days to find things that fall under the "health food" category that isn't labeled as "natural" on some part of the packaging.  Common supermarket products will be sure to tout their superiority on the basis of having "all-natural" ingredients.  It's well they do, right?  I mean, everybody knows that natural is always better than artificial... right?
Come now, you knew that was coming
The first point I want to address is this idea that there is something special about being "natural."  When you get right down to it, the fallacy here harkens back to archaic vitalistic viewpoints about living things.  When someone actually understands the basics of chemistry, it's quite ridiculously apparent that any given substance has the same effect in a reaction no matter how it was made.  It makes no difference if you created salicylic acid by carboxylation of sodium phenol and then treated it with sulfuric acid, or if you extracted by distilling a willow bark tea.  It is still the same substance.

The tinge of vitalism is this notion that there exists in living sources some sort of mysterious "essence" of nature.  There is no evidence whatsoever to support such a thing.  When you buy something that has "natural xxxxx flavor", the chemical makeup is entirely identical to an "artificial xxxxxx flavor."  There is no "life essence" or additional nature-exuding nanocrystals in the natural counterpart.  Note that when they are not chemically identical, the artificial flavor actually is referred to as "imitation xxxxxx flavor", which is sometimes the case (a good example of this would be imitation vanilla extract).  There is no reason to think that a natural flavoring is any better for you than an artificial one.  Nor is there any reason to think that artificial flavorings are bad for you...  it's just worth noting that when you're dealing with something which simply has a "flavoring" added, it means you're basically getting no nutritional value out of that component in any case, so its effect is pretty neutral as far as health goes.

These sorts of things escape people's minds because of the stigma attached to the word "artificial."  It implies that it's fake, or some sort of cheap facsimile...  or in the case of food and medicine, it implies that it's some sort of mystery substance that came out of a laboratory created by people in white lab coats performing dark and unruly experiments.  People need to grow the hell up and grab a brain.  If you actually believe things are like this, then I have to say you make a good argument for support of euthanasia.  The former error makes the mistake of taking colloquial meanings of words (which are generally looser) and confusing them with technical definitions as the word is used in a specific field (which are extremely specific in their meaning) and turning it into a horrid mistake.  People who get confused by "artificial" in this way are no better than the creationist twats who think biological evolution can be dismissed because it's a "theory."  The latter error is little more than blind fear and revulsion of that which is all but willfully misunderstood, which is a mostly "natural" reaction for people to have...  and it is very "naturally" WRONG.

So much so, that it warranted the enlarged font, all-caps, bold, italics and the underlining.

Let's be clear here.  What matters is not how something is attained, but what it is and what effect it has.  There is nothing mysterious about synthetic substances nor is there something more to natural substances than just what's in there chemically.  As I've pointed out before, cocaine is technically an all-natural herbal extract, but you don't see anyone advocating putting cocaine into a bottle of shampoo.  Substances like Taxol/Abraxane work because it induces defects in cell division and mitotic spindle assembly, not because it's extracted from a yew tree.  Your chromosomes don't really care if it came from a lab or a Pacific yew or an English yew.  Funny how that works.

It is indeed a fact that when substances are found in their "natural" packaging, they will be one of a vast variety of several substances, some of which can augment the function of others.  The mistake is in the idea that people don't already know this.  Generally, it is through intensive study and testing that people find and isolate functional component chemicals that exist within a source and find whether or not there is any "synergy" between multiple substances in a source -- when that happens for instance in the case of medical drug studies, even the dark and evil medical establishment will lean in favor of "natural" cures.  Nonetheless, that does not mean you are free to always jump on the natural bandwagon.  What it actually means is that proper science actually involves intellectual honesty.  Something which is not part of the price of admission when it comes to alternative remedies, health food fads, or in the sea of touted miracle cures out there.  Which is precisely why all the warnings of side effects on pharmaceutical drugs, in reality, makes the field infinitely more worthy of your trust.  These people at least took the time to find out what the effects are and make sure to inform you of it.  When someone tells you that a substance you are eating or drinking or rubbing on yourself has absolutely no side effects, what they are actually saying is 1 or more out of a few possibilities --
1 ) They never bothered to find out what side effects there actually are,
2 ) They have no idea what it is they're selling you,
3 ) What they're selling you is either fake/placebo or offers its beneficial components in such tiny amounts as to be more or less ineffectual,
or 4 ) Any effect it has, side or otherwise, is completely made up and there is simply no truth to it.

Sure, there are somewhat spurious cases like the doctors who advocate taking a resveratrol pill with a glass of red wine.  Clearly, they accept the fact that red wine is full of a huge variety of substances, many of which are not fully understood.  As such, it is entirely conceivable that there could be some augmentative effects from other chemicals which improve the efficacy of the resveratrol isolate that exists in a supplement.  Conversely, there could also be a depressive effect that reduces the efficacy, for all we know.  Either way, it's presumptuous to say one way or another until more extensive study is done.  At the very least, they're not recommending something which is harmful when taken in moderation, assuming you don't suffer from any sort of liver disease.

The very fact, however, that you get a wide variety of other substances in concert with the ones that do prove to be helpful...  or additionally, that the contents of even the same source can be quite a grab bag that doesn't guarantee ideal results is exactly why you shouldn't be prepared at any cost to take some sort of raw unprocessed source.  Certain fungal cultures, for instance, prove to be very good source material for extracting a number of statin drugs.  However, the nature of the chemical makeup of many of the substances these fungi produce can also include lethal nephrotoxins.  It is only by way of understanding the value of the chemicals bit by bit that we can isolate those that actually matter.  So I suggest you think twice before you choose between a pharmaceutical statin and a yeast supplement which may contain a hodgepodge of other components as well.

On the flipside of this is in the processed food that generally dominates our diet.  On the one hand, you've got all sorts of artificial ingredients, colorings, aroma enhancers, etc.  Well, it's not really as complicated as people think, even though it took a great deal of work to get to where we are now.  This is also one of those places where "natural" becomes a bit of a wash.  We look at ingredients like "maltodextrin", "monosodium glutamate", "xanthan gum" and immediately think of it as some sort of synthetic inexplicable chemical created as a result of a series of Frankenstein-y experiments for the express purpose of making us fatter and sicker.  In fact, all of these are completely natural ingredients and exist in a lot of things we consider quite innocuous, and there is precisely zero evidence to suggest that there is anything harmful or fattening about either of them. at least in any quantities within the range allowable.  As a side note, "allowable" ranges as approved by the FDA and/or USDA are very very conservative.  They do not limit companies to the LD50 limit, but to some range which is incredibly tiny in comparison.  Yes, they may have some uses completely unrelated to food -- xanthan gum has applications in petroleum drilling, for instance -- but that's not really rare at all (especially not for something extracted from corn).  Things like cornstarch, milk solids, sugar, etc. are all well-known to us, but polysorbate 80, ethyl propionate, diacetyl are all so poorly understood that they are easy scapegoats for everything that is wrong with us.  The reality is that those ingredients are really quite neutral in their effect, and the problem is behavioral on our own part, and highly processed foods have simply made it easier to feed that idiocy.

If we're to define "natural" as unprocessed or unfettered from its state in nature, then you are consuming something artificial every time you drink a cup of coffee.  If we're simply to define "natural" as occurring in nature, then almost everything you put in your body qualifies, even if it happened to be synthesized or created by other means besides extracting and isolating them from their more common sources.  If we're to define "natural" as being sourced from natural things, well, that doesn't really tell you much about what's done to it.  But all that aside, do you happen to notice that there's not really a definition of natural that defines it as "good" nor is there a definition of artificial that defines it as "bad."

Let us not forget that any and all products out there, natural or artificial, are actually created and sold for an explicit purpose.  It is because they fulfill that purpose effectively that they are still sold.  How well they perform in that respect is quite simply a function of what that product is.  "Natural" vs. "Artificial", is, ironically, a completely artificial metric which can be unequivocally demonstrated to be unrelated to any qualitative or quantitative value of the thing it describes.  The nature of the value of a food, drug, or some additive in your toiletries is determinable entirely through biochemistry and physics.  Asking the question of how it got there is a stupid and meaningless question.  Do you think your body is going to do better for consuming belladonna, hemlock, strychnine, oleander just because they're "all-natural"?

Ask a stupid and meaningless question, you're going to waste your time worrying about stupid and meaningless things.  If you have the opinion that "natural" is just inherently better, you can call it an opinion, and thereby have a loophole to say that it's your right to have that opinion.  Fine.  People have a right to their own opinion.  But one right nobody has or ever can have is to deny facts or to make up their own.  If your opinion runs counter to reality, your opinion is wrong and your way of thinking is objectively inferior to that of people who have facts on their side.  PERIOD.  Are there cases where an all-natural product is demonstrably superior to its artificial counterpart?  Absolutely.  Are there counterexamples to this?  You bet.  The whole point is that it's a meaningless factor, and that too, is a demonstrable fact.  Deal with it.