Saturday, September 08, 2012

Weekend Post - Natural?

If something is “natural” does that mean it’s good? If something is unnatural does that make it bad?

Of course many “natural” products are perfectly wonderful. Oxygen is natural. Water is natural. Vitamin A, otherwise known as retinol, is natural. But all of these things, if taken to excess, will kill you. Arsenic, cyanides and many bacteria are perfectly natural but they will also kill you stone dead. Lions and hippos are natural, just like mosquitos. Falling off a cliff is natural.

Anti-retroviral drugs, plastics and semiconductors are all “unnatural”, none of them occur “naturally”, but all of them have improved the quality of our lives immeasurably. Hospital operating theatres, telephone exchanges and refrigerators are all completely unnatural. iPads, cellphones and cars aren’t natural either but try taking any of these things away from me and I’ll show you a perfectly natural reaction.

It’s not as simple as natural is good, unnatural is bad. That’s the “naturalistic fallacy”, the idea that natural products are somehow better for you than unnatural ones. This fallacy is everywhere. Take sugar for example. Sugar is sugar, wherever it comes from. C6H12O6. However there is a belief, held by almost everybody in the world, that somehow brown sugar is better for you than white, refined sugar. But there’s no significant difference at all between them. They’re both just sugar, the only difference is the process by which they are produced. White sugar is produced by taking natural sugar cane and removing molasses from it. Here’s the key point. Brown sugar is NOT the original product that preceeded the removal of the molasses. In fact more often than not it’s actually white sugar that has then had the molasses added back to it. Brown sugar has actually been processed even more than white sugar.

Practically, chemically and, above all, nutritionally, brown and white sugar are completely equal. They’ve both as bad as each other. They will both make you as fat as each other, they’ll both rot your teeth as much as the other.

Several people have contacted me recently asking me about a product called Moringa. They’ve all seen claims made about it, in particular that it can help them lose weight. Their skeptical brain cells have been, well, skeptical. Can one single product be so miraculous?

The starting point is that the Moringa plant, Moringa Oleifera, really is genuinely quite remarkable. The leaves in particular are remarkable nutritious, full of vitamins and minerals and can even boost the milk production or nursing mothers. It’s an excellent crop in countries plagued by drought and famine.

But, and it’s an important “but”, that doesn’t make it miraculous. It doesn’t mean that just because it’s leaves are pumped full of beta-carotene, protein, potassium and a host of vitamins that it can cure cancer, make you shed weight or win a Nobel Peace Prize.

This is actually one occasion when a fair amount of research has been done. On the US National Institute of Health research web site I found 305 (update, now 307) different research papers into the properties, effects and usefulness of Moringa. The vast majority of the results were what scientists describe as “inconclusive”. That’s a polite way scientists have of saying there’s no evidence either way. No evidence at all. Many of the experiments were on rats or done in test tubes, others were “sociological”, seeing how many people used Moringa. One particularly interesting one looked at the use of various “herbal” concoctions used by people in Zimbabwe taking anti-retroviral drugs to help minimize their side effects. Some appear to have a minor effect but unfortunately for the Moringa industry, Moringa wasn’t one of them.

As far as the weight loss claim is concerned, that again appears to have nothing more than “inconclusive evidence” on it’s side. So no evidence at all then. The conclusion seems to be simple. Moringa doesn’t make you thinner and it doesn’t make you fatter either.

I was also asked recently about the use of aluminium in anti-perspirants. Was aluminium, the most abundant metal in the planet’s crust, harmful? In particular was it’s use in anti-perspirants a risk to the people that use it? Again it’s one of the “inconclusive evidence” situations. There’s no evidence it harms people but there’s also no evidence that it doesn’t. It’s not like alcohol, tobacco or shooting yourself in the head, all of which are know to kill a large proportion of people who indulge in them. It’s still no more than speculation without any evidence.

As Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Almost all occupants of the natural remedy worls are very fond of making extraordinary claims. Very few of them can back them up with real, genuine, peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The reason is that almost all of them, even the ones relating to products with some benefits, like Moringa, are bogus.

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