Natural doesn’t mean safe

Madeline Papineau, 17, wanted to lose a few pounds so she would look good in her graduation dress. She bought an “all-natural” green tea weight-loss supplement that promised to “increase your CALORIE BURNING capacity today.”


She took the capsules for six days according to the instructions. On the seventh day she woke up vomiting violently. She was very dehydrated and went to a Cornwall, Ontario, hospital where they gave her three litres of fluids intravenously.

Madeline continued with the weight-loss supplement and her condition worsened. Then her mother took her to the children’s hospital in Ottawa where they found that Madeline’s liver and kidneys were shutting down. They started dialysis immediately. After 10 days in intensive care and month at home, she began to recover.

The ingredients in the weight-loss supplement look innocuous: green, black and white tea extracts, vitamins, and bitter orange. They are not so innocent.  Medical reporter Andre Picard says: “But the reality is that drugs are drugs, whether they are ‘natural’ or not. And when it has a desired effect, it invariably also has an undesired side effect (Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016).”

“There are more than 60 case reports in medical literature of green tea extract being associated with liver failure, sometimes leading to transplant and death.” Bitter orange is listed as one of the “dirty dozen” by Consumer Reports, “linked to serious adverse events.”

How is it that dangerous drugs end up in remedies easily bought by teenagers who just want to lose a little weight? Astonishing, it’s because the regulator’s role is to make sure that the products contain the ingredients listed but not to verify that they do what they advertise such as “burn fat.” Adverse reactions such as Madeline’s don’t even have to be reported.

It’s puzzling why some drugs undergo rigorous testing for years in carefully controlled tests, costing billions of dollars, before they appear on the market. Others, deemed “natural,” are exempt.

I think this double standard exists because we see the natural world as good. Mother Nature protects and nurtures us. She would never harm us.

The natural world is neither good nor bad –it is just there. All creatures live in the natural world, including us. Everything we do is natural, including the manufacture of bombs and medicines. How could it be otherwise? It’s arrogant to think we are apart from nature.

If anything is unnatural, it is the lack of scrutiny of drugs for consumption. Buyers beware. “The result of this double standard is a need for consumers to embrace the admonition, caveat emptor,” says Picard. And we need to stop giving credence to the false notion that natural equals safe.



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