Natural Does Not Mean Safe

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Herbal supplements are unregulated, overhyped, and potentially deadly.


This past October, the office of the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services issued two reports underscoring the need for improved oversight of the marketing of dietary supplements and improved surveillance of their effects. The reports add to a mounting body of evidence documenting a serious public-health problem.

Use of dietary and herbal supplements has grown dramatically in recent years in the United States. In 2007, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, $14.8 billion was spent on nonvitamin, nonmineral, natural products, such as fish oil, glucosamine, and Echinacea—equivalent to approximately one-third of total out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs. Of that total, $4.4 billion was spent on herbal supplements. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey for 2003 to 2006 indicate that one-half of American adults use dietary supplements and 20 percent use a supplement with at least one botanical ingredient.

Many people think that because herbs are natural, and because they are being marketed and sold legally, they must be safe and effective. Furthermore, surveys of the public indicate that most people believe these products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, both assumptions are mistaken. 

In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, with heavy backing from the dietary supplements industry. By defining herbal supplements and botanicals as dietary supplements, DSHEA exempted them from the more rigorous standards used by the FDA in regulating food, drugs, and medical devices—essentially leaving it up to the industry to regulate itself. This single piece of legislation opened the floodgates to a rapid expansion in the sale of dietary supplements.

Between 1994 and 2008, the number of dietary supplement products on the market increased from 4,000 to 75,000. In the first 10 months of 2008, the FDA received nearly 600 reports of serious adverse events (including hospitalization, disability, and death) from these products and 350 reports of moderate or mild adverse events. However, the FDA believes that these reports are drastically underreported and estimates that the annual number of all adverse events is 50,000.

Written By: Geoffrey Kabat
continue to source article at slate.com

20 COMMENTS

  1. “Natural” is sort of a rip-off word when it comes to advertising or labeling, same as the word “organic”. Could be wrong, but I understand that under federal law, one can use the word “organic” on the label if the content(s) of the labeled container is carbon-based. By that reckoning I’m presently seated in front of an “organic” display while sipping from an “organic” bottle of soda. I’m beginning to be repulsed by the term “green”, as well.

  2. Ah yes, good old Natural, so natural is must be good.

    Evil ‘Big Pharma’ produces a drug that causes a significant increase in the likelyhood of developing schitzophrenia on first use if the user is predisposed to developing the condition in the first place, it even increases the chance in those who that are not.

    Yet, there are those who fight to keep the drug and make it legal nation wide, why? Well, it causes one to get high, yep, that’s right, because it gets one high and because ‘I’ts my body’, this drug must be legal to these people.

    Sorry, I got it wrong, it is not ‘Big Pharma’ that produces this drug, you can grow it yourself, it’s called marijuana.

    Can you honestly believe that ‘big pharma’ could get away with producing such a drug and masses of people fighting for it to be legal?

    Natural, as the OP says, does not mean good by default.

  3. fullyladenswallow
    “Natural” is sort of a rip-off word when it comes to advertising or labeling, same as the word “organic”. Could be wrong, but I understand that under federal law, one can use the word “organic” on the label if the content(s) of the labeled container is carbon-based.

    You seem to be confusing “organic”, as in “organic chemistry”, with “organic ” as in “Organic Farming”.

    I don’t know about Federal Law, but in the UK,  there are specific requirements of using pesticide and manufactured chemical-fertilizer-free farming methods, before a product can be labelled “organic”.

    I’m beginning to be repulsed by the term “green”, as well.

    “Green” is a poorly defined term, which is bandied around by various groups attributing different meanings to it.

  4.  To clarify: It’s seems as though one can slap the word/term, “organic”/ “natural” or “organically grown”/”naturally grown” on a product, (say vitamins or even a box of cookies), and instantly bestow a higher level of quality, potency or goodness on the product.

    And no, it’s not easy being “green”.

  5. Yeah: “Choose this one, it’s natural so obviously better for you, and it contains no nasty ‘chemicals’. ”
     
    This is absolutely one of the favourite bees in my cranial apiary.
     
    ‘Contains no chemicals’ is countered by asking how many chemicals one’s accuser thinks were in the cabbage they had for dinner last night, and ‘natural’ by the simple counterexamples of native elemental arsenic, poison dart frogs and ricin.

  6. fullyladenswallow
     To clarify: It’s seems as though one can slap the word/term, “organic”/ “natural” or “organically grown”/”naturally grown” on a product, (say vitamins or even a box of cookies), and instantly bestow a higher level of quality, potency or goodness on the product.

    On something like a box of cookies, the cereal and the sugar (cane/beet) should have been organically grown and be free of pesticide & herbicide residues. (at least in countries where the use of the term “organic” is regulated.) 

    Organic meats and eggs are less likely to contain antibiotic residues, or antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    I do not see much evidence that other quality properties of the food are higher.  

    The land and ecosystem they grow in, is probably healthier without high dosages of chemical fertilisers or sulphate residues from these.   The local river pollution from run-off containing wasted fertilizer will also be less.

  7. It’s just another hype. We all have to stay slim, quit drinking, have safe sex. The list is endless. There is a bit of truth in most of them but it’s all so pointless.
     
    Just take this other food hype. Eating almost or completely raw vegetables. What’s with that? I hate it. Vegetables have to be cooked. It tastes better (oh no it tastes so much better raw, cant you just taste the vitamins in there…. yuck) and my body can extract nutrients better because of the simple fact that my digestive system isn’t capable of digesting most plant fibers. I know that some fibers are good because they stimulate the bowels but that doesn’t mean everything has to be raw.
     
    I hate hypes.

  8. Many people that support the legalization of marijuana also support educating everyone about the potential dangers of using it.  See LEAP for example.

    Dr Ben Goldarce of Bad Science  wrote a short blog post several years ago when -I think- the UK was deciding whether or not to reclassify marijuana and a lot of talk concerning a new study linking its use to mental illness was going around.

    I like his title:

    Blah blah cannabis blah blah blah

    The entire blog post is here.

    I’ll just post the last part of it below,

    It was also interesting to see how the risk was numerically reported. The most dramatic figure is always the “relative risk increase”, or rather: “cannabis doubles the risk of psychosis”, “cannabis increases the risk by 40%”. Because schizophrenia is comparatively rare, translated this into real numbers this works out – if the figures in the paper are correct, and causality is accepted – that about 800 yearly cases of schizophrenia are attributable to cannabis. This is not belittling the risk, merely expressing it clearly.But what’s really important, of course, is what you do with this data. Firstly, you can mis[present it, and scare people. Obviously it feels great to be so self-righteous, but people will stop taking you seriously. After all, you’re talking to a population of young people who have worked out that you routinely exaggerate the dangers of drugs, not least of all with the ridiculous “modern cannabis is 25 times stronger” fabrication so beloved by the media and politicians.And craziest of all is the fantasy that reclassifying cannabis will stop six million people smoking it, and so eradicate those 800 extra cases of psychosis. If anything, for all drugs, increased prohibition may create market conditions where more concentrated and dangerous forms are more commercially viable. We’re talking about communities, and markets, with people in them, after all: not molecules and neuroreceptors.

    —-//—-

    Returning to the OP, obviously natural does not mean safe and I suspect that many people who opt to use things like wonder diet products understand that. But being marketed as natural probably provides just enough blunting of the devils fork to make many of us act against our better judgement.  Combine that with our desperate need to get to some form recognizable as a healthy human shape and we’re off to the races.  It has been really sad to watch.

    When do we tackle energy drinks? ENERGY! -holy crap

  9. Hey, Alan, what a lovely reminder of childhood. Our choice, since I clearly didn’t mix with such a hardcore crew as you did, was the decidedly non-toxic Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris.

    It’s wonderful how evolution has provided children with, in the hollow stems an ideal launch tube, and also, in the little black seeds, an endless supply of ammunition.

    We certainly did our bit to spread the seeds about, discharged mainly at passers-by.

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between the proportion of Anthriscus plants having more of the preferred slender stems of the correct calibre for the seeds, and areas with greater populations of young hooligans. (I speak, of course, of a gentler age). Knowing how plant breeding works, it’s almost not a joke.

    Especially since the coarse, non weapons-grade plants were selected against by being slashed down and crammed into the adjacent public post box. It amused various ten-year-olds to watch (from cover) the poor postie having to remove all this biomass before he could collect the letters.  Happy times.

  10. ‘Because schizophrenia is comparatively rare’ – RARE? 1 in 100 people will be diagnosed with schizophrenia within their lifetime. Would YOU call that rare?

    1% of the worlds population having schizophrenia is not rare, neither is it trivial. 10-13% of all schizophrinia sufferers will attempt suicide, campare this with 0.01% otherwise.

  11. Yes, thankfully schizophrenia is comparatively rare, and nobody has said it is trivial.    
    He was stating the risk –which is contested btw– more clearly than the media had done.   

    You want to scare people into accepting prohibition and keeping the cannabis industry underground because cannabis may cause -in the example cited for the UK- about 800 cases of schizophrenia a year from an estimated population of 6,000,000 smokers.

    That is precisely what is meant by “exaggerating the risks of drug use”.  

    I have to wonder given your obvious concern for the well being of just a few, why you seem oblivious to the suffering of thousands that is caused by prohibition.  Why is there such a huge discrepancy?  

    I assume it is because you genuinely believe that prohibition can work and that when people stop consuming drugs you’ll kill two birds with one stone.  May I suggest that you examine the failed war on drugs in the US.

  12. I recently laughed a lot at the packaging on some salt describing it as ‘organic’. That appealed to the a level chemist. The fact that I laughed more about this than anything else probably says more about my state of mind than any humour inherrent in the situation.

  13. headswapboy
    I recently laughed a lot at the packaging on some salt describing it as ‘organic’. That appealed to the a level chemist. The fact that I laughed more about this than anything else probably says more about my state of mind than any humour inherrent in the situation.

    Organically produced salt does exist!  It’s just that I don’t fancy eating it!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S…  –
    The salt gland is an organ for excreting excess salts.

    It is found in elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, and skates), seabirds, and some reptiles.

    Sharks’ glands are found in their rectum,
    birds’ and reptiles’ in or on the skull in the area of the eyes, nostrils or mouth.

    Salt glands maintain salt balance and allow marine vertebrates to drink seawater.[1]
    Active transport via sodium-potassium pump action moves salt from the blood into the gland, where it is excreted as a concentrated solution.

  14. One book that covers this issue–”Snake Oil Science”– Is an incredibly in depth dissection of the complementary and alternative medicine industry. In the book the author, who is a bio-statistician by trade, claims that the companies that sell these sorts of herbal remedies rely on flawed clinical trials –in which a number of things from high participant dropout, lacking a control(or placebo), or using inherently unreliable methods of judging whether or not glucosamine or some other sort of snake oil relieves pain– to reach a conclusion as to whether a herb is effective or not, which completely skews the data: not like people take the time to Analyze the data before taking these supplements in the first place. Sort of an interesting read.
    The FDA needs to first acknowledge that these supplement are being ingested, and therefore they should endure the same scrutiny as food does(which could be much better in the US). Second, they need to hire people that don’t have any ties whatsoever to these companies– whether they’re food companies , or herbal supplement companies– because there are people creating relaxed regulations for these companies because they are former members themselves and obviously have vested financial interests in making sure that they continue selling worthless(but cheap to make) dried plants and vitamin derivatives.

  15. I am an ER nurse and hear patients say all the time some variation of
    natural = safe.
    I usually come back with some version of this list “snake venom, hemlock, poison ivy, mercury, lead ,uranium and tobacco” .
    and ask “all of these are natural, would you ingest them?”

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