Posts Tagged ‘naturalistic fallacy’

Just label it! Supplements, that is.

Let’s talk about a big, billion dollar industry. Lots of hype, little solid data. Basically unregulated. No need to perform safety tests or clinical trials before putting a product on the market. No review or testing by an independent party. Checkered safety record, certain products strongly linked to organ damage, cancer, hepatitis, and death (among other things). Consumed by millions of unsuspecting citizens every year.

GMOs? Nope. I’m talking about the supplement industry.

Image credit: Ano Lobb

Twitter friend @donnzpg recently pointed me to this article on Consumer Reports: 10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins and Supplements — don’t assume they’re safe because they’re ‘all-natural’. It struck a chord with me because I know people — lots of people — who are intensely skeptical about synthetic cosmetics ingredients and pesticides and GMOs, yet take many supplements and herbals without requiring independent, double-blinded clinical testing results.

I am absolutely guilty of this. I choose cosmetics with very few ingredients (and yep, generally natural ones) and use very few of them, because I fundamentally don’t think the cost/benefit assessment pans out when it comes to something like cosmetics. Yet I haven’t once checked up to see what tests have been done on my daily vitamin. Probably not too many — it came from my well-intentioned mother, who got it at Target. In fact, I feel downright virtuous when I take it even though I’ve read the studies that question the efficacy of vitamins and supplements. (High doses of vitamins can be downright harmful.) I buy fortified orange juice even thoughI just saw a study that suggests that too much calcium and Vitamin D can cause blood and bone issues

Goddammit, brain. If this is the best you can do, I might have to replace you with a more rational model.

As a plant lover and photosynthesis fan, I’m struggling to overcome my naturalistic fallacy and look at plants in a more rational way. Some can heal, many can harm, and a fair number can kill. If you’re not convinced that plants have a dark side, think about this. When the first photosynthesizing organisms arose, they caused a major extinction on earth by flooding the atmosphere with that most unstable, reactive, and poisonous gas — oxygen. But then oxygen became the basis for the ozone layer, which protected life from that other tremendously dangerous, carcinogenic force: UV radiation. If you can eat or breathe or walk under the sun, thank a plant.

At the same time, because plants can’t move, they’ve evolved into incredible chemical factories that protect them from predators. Coffee, bread, chili peppers, and basil are just a few of the things we eat that have naturally occurring carcinogens, and there is nothing that makes these natural chemicals inherently less toxic than synthetic ones. Many of our synthetics are actually based on natural chemicals! As Bruce Ames has said, 99.9% by weight of all pesticides we eat are entirely natural.

What this means is that supplements are chemicals. Essential oils are chemicals. Herbal medicines are chemicals. And the fact that they come from natural sources says exactly nothing about their safety. (It terrifies me when I read about well-meaning green pet owners applying essential oils to their pets. Without clinical testing or dosage information, it’s all one big experiment on a favorite quadruped.)

I’m biased, of course. My aunt died of kidney failure just after turning 40. She had an intense distrust of western medicine and instead relied heavily on traditional Chinese herbal medicine. An autopsy revealed a startling accumulation of heavy metals in her body. These were traced back to the high doses of unregulated herbals she took for 10+ years. She left behind two young children and is much missed.

It’s an anecdote, not a peer reviewed study, but it made an impression on me. And I don’t think it’s altogether an unusual story, either. Supplement makers do not need to test their products or back up their health claims. They do not need to test for or list possible, sometimes extremely serious, drug interactions. They do not need to show allergenicity studies. They have to be proven harmful before the FDA steps in. And they are quite common in processed foods, so it would be fairly easy to overdose on certain vitamins if you drink fortified milk, eat fortified cereal, and pop a daily multivitamin.

I guess my question is: why is the consumer standard of proof so different — and lacking — for supplements? If cosmetic chemicals and GMOs are so alarming, why are we not up in arms demanding that supplement manufacturers prove the safety of their products before peddling them to us?

Just some of the things I’ve been thinking about. Do you take supplements? Have you looked into their safety?


Meet the Poisonous Plants In Your Backyard

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis). Pretty, delicate, toxic. Image credit: Leo-seta.

Sadly, the internet tells me that there’s no such thing as a toxophile or toxicophile. If there were, I’d make a blog button for it. (Other suggested blog buttons for my site: Anti-Social Media Expert — thanks, Karen — and Evolutionary Dead End. Alas, I don’t know how to make buttons.) Anyway, what I mean to say is that I kind of have a thing about poisons. And by thing, I mean that people who look too closely at the books on my bookshelf might decline an invitation to dinner.

This is what comes of reading too many Agatha Christie books at a young and impressionable age.

Plant poisons are my favorite. I’m always taken aback by how elegantly and creatively nature addresses the problem of being eaten. Plants can’t run, so instead they wage chemical warfare on their predators. The Indian bean tree, for example, produces a nectar with a compound that only affects cheater species that steal nectar — but not pollinators.

And plenty of plants are well-protected not just against insects, but also bigger animals, like humans. There are lots of them, and they’re all around us. I’ve pulled together some of my favorite common wicked plants, a number of which are probably in either your backyard or a backyard near you. Welcome to my virtual poison garden!

(And for crying out loud, teach your kids to respect plants. I sampled my way through my mom’s garden as a kid and got lucky she didn’t have anything really poisonous. Although I guess that could explain some of my peculiarities.)

Nerium oleander. Image credit: heatheronhertravels

Oleanders are, in a sense, perfect garden shrubs. They’re drought resistant, have nice foliage, and produce lovely symmetrical pinwheel flowers that smell nice. They’re also among the deadliest of common garden plants, possessing a number of cardiac glycosides that affect heart function and can cause death. Even honey made from oleander nectar is toxic. (Most deaths by oleander, however, are intentional. By anecdote, a number of seniors have ended their lives by drinking oleander tea because it was readily available in their nursing home garden. That story makes me sad.) Interestingly, oleanders are also being investigated for therapeutic uses in treating cancer. The dose makes the poison.

Viburnum lantana. Image credit: Bosc d’Anjou

Lantanas have peppy colored flowers and nice leaves, but that’s about where the good news ends. They’re invasive in Australia, Hawaii, South Asia, and Southern Africa because 1) birds like the fruit and spread the seeds; and 2) the leaves are toxic to most species. Lantanas, especially the unripe berries, contain pentacylic triterpenoids that cause liver problems and phototoxicity in grazing animals (including small children).

Digitals spp. Image credit: Salt Spring Community

Foxgloves are an old garden favorite. The name has an odd etymology that doesn’t actually involve small reddish quadrupeds (Wiki can tell you all about it). Another name for this plant is deadman’s bells. Foxgloves contain cardiac glycosides and have actually been used to treat some heart conditions since the 18th century. My grandmother, who has had congestive heart failure, is on a synthesized form of digoxin. However, cross the [narrow] therapeutic threshold and foxgloves can cause nausea, halos, delirium, irregular heart rhythms, and death. All parts of the plant are toxic, not just for humans, but also for dogs and cats. Even drinking the water that cut foxgloves are sitting in can be deadly.

Conium maculatum. Image credit: jkirkhart35

I doubt anyone plants poison hemlock on purpose, but it’s a common weed in fields and pastures. It’s quite a delicate looking plant, a spindly 6′ tall with dainty little white flowers. Purple spots or streaking on the stalks are a dead giveaway, but it resembles plants that are edible or medicinal (Queen Anne’s Lace, wild fennel, parsley. Socrates is probably hemlock’s most famous victim. Hemlock contains a highly toxic compound called coniine, which paralyzes the muscles, including the heart. It doesn’t take much to cause death — 100mg of the leaves, root, or seeds.

There are many, many others: nightshades, sago palms, castor bean, angel’s trumpets, water hemlock (as if one deadly hemlock weren’t enough), buttercups, dieffenbachias…just more proof that nature’s chemicals aren’t necessarily safer than manmade ones. Which poisonous plants do you have in your garden? 

OK, I think I’m done poking my naturalistic fallacy in the eye with a sharp stick now. If you’re interested in the topic, you might enjoy:

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