By Michael Edgar
You may have heard over the years, “I prefer using this product because it's natural” or “avoid that product as it has a lot of chemicals in it.” It has become part of our daily language and health culture, but if we take a step back and think about what this actually means, we may start to question things. When it comes to statements like this, we are generally making a logical fallacy regarding the efficacy and health of a product.
What is a logical fallacy?
It is a way of thinking or reasoning that has a fundamental flaw in it which can be derived from either its underlying structure, premise, or concept. In regards to the topic of this article, we will focus on the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy, which is the belief that something is good or bad simply because it is viewed as natural or unnatural (1). This view can lead to the belief that certain herbal remedies or alternative therapies are better than modern medical treatments.
The first and most obvious flaw with this is, “what is natural?” Such a term becomes hard to define as all substances are made of various combinations of chemicals. For example, antibiotics can be perceived as unnatural, yet they are derived from natural molds or other plants (3). These same individuals may claim supplements are natural despite this same mindset. One risk inherent to this mindset that I want to make apparent at the beginning of this article is that it may delay appropriate treatment options, leading to potential progression of health issues.
Is natural good?
The short answer is, “it depends” like most nuanced answers will be. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, but if you knew that apples contain cyanide, would you be worried? (2) Probably not, because like most people, you’ve most likely eaten an apple or had a friend eat one and seen no negative health consequences. That is, unless you’re sleeping beauty and, in that case, don’t accept food from strangers, but I digress. We need to keep in mind that several variables are necessary to be considered poisonous such as the dosage of the substance needed to lead to a toxic effects, concentration within the food typically ingested, typical level of consumption of the food, and route of entry (4).
This brings us to the idea of processed foods and the controversy surrounding their health risks. Due to our prior discussion, you may be starting to think about things a bit differently now and questioning the validity of these claims. So firstly, let’s define what a processed food is. A processed food is any food item that has been put through mechanical or chemical processes in order to alter it, such as for improved taste or preservation (5). Simple enough, isn’t it? Some foods we typically are aware of that are processed are whole grains and frozen vegetables, both considered healthy and natural (6). What most people consider to be unhealthy, processed foods are actually ultra-processed foods. These are foods which are put through multiple processes such as extrusion, milling, or molding and contain many highly manipulated ingredients (7-8). Are they inherently bad for one’s health because of this? No, but they have been connected to food items such as soft drinks, candy, and fortified cereals which may have health risks when not moderated and tend to be hyperpalatable (they taste very yummy), leading to excessive consumption (7-8).
One such area of controversy within the study of processed foods that has gained much popularity is the link between processed meats and colorectal cancer (9-11). This stemmed from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) warning of processed meats and its link to colorectal cancer, in which they also found a link with unprocessed meats, however the relationship was weaker (10-11). In their statement, processed meats included things such as hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meats through processes such as salting, curing, or fermentation (10-11). They then placed processed meats within the same cancer-risk category as tobacco smoke, which has since led to the claim that processed meats are as bad as smoking (10-11). The main issue with this is that the statement was actually meant to show that they have enough convincing evidence to link processed meat to cancer, not that processed meat has the same overall effect as smoking. Simply put, they have enough evidence to form a well-established link between processed meats and colorectal cancer (10-11).
For example, 50 grams of processed meat or 100 grams of unprocessed meat is related to an 18% increase in relative risk which appears staggering (10-11). That being said, this relates only to the lifetime risk of 5%, which means an 18% increase would lead to a lifetime risk of approximately 6% (10-11). In addition, they found the strongest evidence for colorectal cancer came from significant meat consumption meaning that typical consumption patterns typically are nothing to worry about. The last issue with the WHO’s statement is the inherent limitations related to observational studies, the type used to form these conclusions. They typically ignore other confounding factors such as the potential that individuals who consumed processed meats may have less health-conscious behaviours in general or lower socioeconomic status. It also ignores the inherent importance of certain foods to different cultural practices or the nutrients available within meat products (12). So overall, what does this mean? It probably means, like most things, we should be conscious to a degree of what we put in our body but not to be crippled by fear if we enjoy one of our favourite snacks or have a family gathering involving processed meats.
Our next area to delve into is the utility and potential health risks associated to genetically modified organisms (GMO). Firstly, GMOs are a broad category and not a singular, defined entity (13). GMOs include plants, animals and microorganisms that have had their genetic makeup modified in some fashion. This generally involves some form of modification, such as in a laboratory setting or use of transgenic technology in which genes are transferred to another organism (13-14). This can include modification through mutagenesis, polyploidy, which changes chromosome number, crossbreeding, or genome editing (13-14). If you’re picturing a scene from Frankenstein, I won’t hold it against you.
To add more confusion to the topic, different nations and different labels define what a GMO is differently. Some common GMOs on the market include sugar beet, cotton, corn, potatoes, and apples (15). Some reasons for the utilization of GMOs overlap with processed foods, such as taste, cosmetic improvements and preservation, but it also expands into other utilities (13-14). Some macro-level utilities involve things like environmental benefits, such as drought resistance, pest resistance, leading to less pesticide usage, and large-scale production modifications (13-14). Lastly, GMO utilization has led to reduced animal cruelty. For example, genetically modified bacteria and yeasts have allowed for rennet to be produced to make cheese which used to be collected from the stomachs of slaughtered calves in the past (16).
So, what is so scary about GMOs? One major fear people have about GMOs relate to the potential unforeseen consequences as people state that humans ‘shouldn’t try to play God.’ That being said, extensive research has shown that crops developed by transgenesis show consistently fewer undesired changes than other methods (17-18). In addition, GMOs tend to reduce chemical pesticide usage by approximately 37% while increasing crop yield by 22% which has benefited farmers in many ways including a 68% increase in profits (19). Lastly, more than 280 scientific societies have reviewed the data related to the safety of transgenic crops and concluded that GMOs are as safe as other crops developed by conventional breeding techniques (20-21).
The last, brief topic of discussion is on the controversy surrounding ‘organic foods.’ For an item to be labelled as organic, it generally is thought to not involve usage of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (22). This has led to the Environment Working Groups (EWGs) Dirty Dozen list aimed at ranking the 12 foods with the highest levels of pesticide residue (23). They did show that pesticide residue on labelled non-organic products was higher but left out one major caveat; that all foods tested still had pesticide residue levels much lower than the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for levels considered dangerous for human consumption (24). The levels were so low in fact that even for non-organic foods, one would see health issues from over-consumption of the food itself before pesticide levels became a health risk (24). It needs to be reiterated though that organic foods still contain pesticides and more so that the current USDA PDP residue-testing program does not test for most organic-approved pesticides such as paraffinic oils, live biologicals, or microbial fermentation products (23-26).
Although the health risk of non-organic food consumption on an individual level can be considered minimal at this point, the negative consequences of organic farming are genuine and real on the larger scale. For example, organic food production leads to lower food crop capacity which is ultimately worse for the environment (27-28). The increased land usage for organic crops offsets their decreased fossil fuel based fertilizer consumption (27-28). More so, the use of manure-based ‘natural’ fertilizers generally have 20% decreased output per unit of land than chemical fertilizer-based farming (27-28). As the population continues to grow, we need to be conscious and prioritize optimal usage of land. Manure-based fertilizer is simply not sustainable or efficient in the long term based on this. As such, organic food production becomes an increasingly emotion-based endeavour instead of an evidence-based endeavour.
The following questions you should ask to not fall into the ‘appeal to nature fallacy’ trap:
1. What is the definition for the ‘health word’ used?
2. What is considered healthy or unhealthy, natural or unnatural, etc..?
3. What is the component or substance within the food item which makes it toxic and at what dosage?
4. What are the impacts for the individual and for large scale production in the short-term and long-term?
5. Is what we are doing evidence-based or one that appeals to our emotions?
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