Have you ever said or heard a word so often it starts to not sound like a word at all? That's how I feel when I hear people use the word 'natural', especially when they use it as if it's some sort of magical trump card to overrule any other considerations or objections. So many people treat the word 'natural' like a synonym for 'better', or worse yet, 'flawless', but the truth is, our careless, over-liberal use of the word has done such a number on it that it really means nothing anymore.
If we flip to the N-pages in our trusty Merriam-Webster, we get the following definition of the word:
adjective ˈna-chə-rəl, ˈnach-rəl
: existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
adjective ˈna-chə-rəl, ˈnach-rəl
There's a lot of nasty stuff existing in or caused by nature. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Ebola. Black widow spiders. Arsenic. Kirk Cameron. I can also think of a lot of pretty awesome things made or caused by humankind. Antibiotics. Indoor plumbing. Flannel pajamas. Nutella. While the word 'natural' is used all the time as an expression of value, it's an empty one. Cyanide is naturally made in apple seeds and stone fruits, but no one would argue that because it's natural, that's the good stuff. If we make antibiotics in a pharmaceutical vat, do they somehow lose their value compared to the kind made 'naturally' by fungus, even if we're getting the same molecule in the end? Let me show you two sugar molecules, one made chemically and one made in an ear of corn, and you can tell me which one is the 'good' version. What kind of chemical bond is intrinsic moral value stored in, anyway?
It's not just in the realm of semantics that the word 'natural' has about as much use as a chocolate teapot, though. Have you ever chosen a particular brand of food, a cleaning product, or some cosmetics over the competition because the word natural appeared on the packaging? Bad news: in the United States, there is only one rule when it comes to the use of the word 'natural' on your favorite grocery store products. That rule? Natural meat and eggs have to be 'minimally processed'. What counts as minimal processing? Good question. I would guess whatever is cheap and fast enough to result in a price tag that natural-happy consumers are willing to pay. Technically, added sugar is an all-natural sweetener. Natural additives could also include corn starch, hydrolyzed proteins, or eau de beaver asshole. (I really wish that one was a joke, but it's not.)
If the natural nudniks were content to pay twice as much for a loaf of bread with the word 'natural' on the bag, that would be annoying enough. But of course, the word's reach hasn't been limited to a couple of overpriced grocery store aisles.
More than just a buzzword to flog product, the word 'natural' can actually be dangerous. There's a long list of websites, books, and 'naturopaths' (like doctors, but without all that pesky training and residency and certification business) who, instead of trying to sell you groceries under the masthead of naturalness, are trying to sell you health instead. And people are buying it.
At best, natural cures like homeopathy, magnetic bracelets, and herbal supplements are a waste of money and time. At worst, they can be actively dangerous. Pharmaceutical ads on TV telling you to ask your doctor if the newest anti-depressant/beta blocker/erectile dysfunction medication are annoying, but at least they come with lists of side effects.
Natural cures and treatments are presented as healthier and safer than the normal option, when that is often the opposite of the truth: For one thing, this type of supplement/medication/pretend-pill isn't regulated by the FDA in the same way that other (a.k.a. "real") medications are, which means you don't really know what you're getting nor how it's going to affect you. Plus, natural remedies can even interfere with an actual drug you're taking, from heart medications to antidepressants to, ahem, birth control pills. Nothing says 'natural' like a surprise round of natural family planning.
The other all-natural elephant in the room, of course, is that treatments like this don't actually work. Oops! If you take honey therapy to treat your allergies like "Doctor" Mercola recommends, instead of getting allergy shots, your spring allergies aren't going anywhere (although on the bright side, you get a spoonful of honey instead of a jab in the arm). The best thing you can say about natural cures is that you might ride a little placebo wave to some minor health benefits. You know what else has minor (and major) health benefits? Actually treating your illness.
Naturopathic quackery kills people who earnestly believe that a healthy diet is a better option for a cancer cure than surgery or medication. Natural herbal remedies can give you all-natural kidney failure. And those super-duper plant-based treatments for arthritis and pain relief can even straight-up give you cancer. But at least they're natural, so they still must be better than the conventional alternatives!
There's nothing wrong with making some 'natural'-oriented choices. Grow your own food if you're so inclined, shop at the organic stalls at the farmers market if that floats your produce boat, make your own cleaning solution with vinegar if that's what you prefer. (That last one is almost certainly better than swabbing down your house with antibacterial cleaning products anyway.) But when it comes to the grocery store, don't break the bank in an effort to uphold the naturalistic fallacy. And when it comes to your health, trust in science. That way, maybe we can finally let all these unregulated, unwarranted, unhelpful remedies die a natural death.