The Myth of the Natural

If you want people to buy your product just label it natural. If you want to disapprove of something just label it unnatural. Yet, to embrace the idea that everything natural is good and wholesome and everything artificial is false and dangerous, is to live in a fool’s paradise.

Walk along any cosmetic counter or health food aisle in a major store and you will find products vying with each other to claim they are the most natural. Vitamins, for example, are branded Nature’s Own, Nature’s Way, Naturopathica, NutraCare, Nutra-Life and the Natural Vitamin Co. We have been convinced that any product with a recognisable plant or animal name is beneficial and anything with a long list of chemicals is terribly bad for us.

The words organic and natural are a mantra to help ward off the stressful realities of modern life. Maybe they represent nostalgia for an imagined time when we were more in tune with our environment and lived a less superficial life. The reality is that people have been making cosmetics with chemicals since they first learnt how to make decent soap. Even when manufacturers maintain that they only use natural ingredients, their products still contain chemicals. For example, take an ingredient labelled organic dextrose. Dextrose has the same formula as glucose. It is an organic compound, scientifically speaking, because it is based on a carbon chain (C6H12O6). It is labelled organic by its producers when it is derived from corn. Dextrose is a very simple molecule and its organic version is identical in composition to dextrose made in a lab. It is a chemical.

I belong to an organic growers’ society because I think that an organic approach to growing food makes people stop and think about what they are doing to the soil. But I know that there is no observable difference in taste between organic and non-organic food, despite our wishful thinking. I know that the active chemical in the pesticide pyrethrum is the same whether it comes from an organic or non-organic source. And I know that an organic approach is not necessarily best for the environment.

There is a growing trend of using herbal remedies for ailments because they are natural products. Most pharmacies have many shelves of natural fixes for every imaginable problem; their labels generally extol the virtues of a plant. Many plants have pharmaceutical properties—but some have very few benefits, some none and some are positively dangerous. If I wanted to use the active ingredient in foxglove (digitalis) to treat a heart condition, I would choose digitalis refined by chemists, recommended by my doctor and supplied by the pharmacist, not an unregulated, over the counter product, which might not be pure or consistent.

People in the past had no choice but to go natural. As a result, many of them did not survive childhood. Around one quarter of all children did not live past their first year; roughly half died before puberty. As an infant, in the early 1950s, I contracted scarlet fever and was given a new wonder drug: penicillin. This unnatural intervention saved my life.

To be a woman in the past was to be constantly courted by death. Large numbers of women died in childbirth. Maternal mortality rates were around 1 to 2 women per 100 births, although they could be much higher in maternity hospitals, where infections could spread from one woman to another. Without unnatural interventions, such as modern surgery and drugs like antibiotics, both men and women had shorter life expectancies. Although, if you made it through childhood, the perils of war, injuries and poverty and were lucky, you could still live to a ripe old age.

Much as we may praise the virtues of a more natural life, most of us are very selective. We might like the idea of natural food and clothing, but we still drive cars, turn to medical specialists for cancer treatments, and like pure water so much that we are drowning the oceans in a sea of plastic water bottles. Many of us are hypocrites when it comes to championing the natural. For example, when a few brave actresses decided to revel in the natural by allowing their underarm hair to grow luxuriantly, some fans were scandalised—even though this excess of hair was totally natural.

The problems start when an idyllic image of nature is held up as a reason to prevent people from making choices based on factual information and their own requirements. In some cases, the natural is best attitude can lead to the rejection of critical thinking, evidence-based decision making and science. The anti-vaccination and anti-family planning campaigns are examples of this.

The natural is best argument is often used to urge women to put up with things that are not ideal and that can be changed. Maybe this has something to do with the good mother idea: the notion that the most fulfilling thing a woman can do is get married and have children.

A woman who does not choose to have children is often chided for going against natural instincts and making selfish choices. One of the most disgraceful episodes in Australian politics involved the censure of our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, by the then leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, for not being an honest woman. She had gone against the natural order of things. Fortunately, not everyone shared Mr Abbott’s views.

Women who reach menopause and want to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are urged to consider the risks of such an unnatural approach. The medical establishment has gone along with this natural is best argument by citing the increased risk of breast cancer associated with HRT. But research on this issue shows that this risk has been overplayed, while the benefits of taking hormone replacement therapy have been downplayed. For example, hormone replacement therapy can help reduce the chances of developing of osteoporosis and bowel cancer.

In a blow for natural must be best, evidence has now shown that there are no benefits to periods. Continuously taking the combined contraceptive pill to avoid periods altogether is not only safe, but confers many benefits. Yet women who use the contraceptive pill to eliminate or lighten their periods are warned of the dangers of going against nature. After all, periods are natural, are they not? I can understand that some women argue that we should throw off the terrible stigma associated with periods in many cultures. We are not unclean nor incapable because we have periods and we should not be ashamed of them or treat them as taboo—however, as a person who suffered regularly from migraines, premenstrual tension and heavy bleeding during menstruation, I can see no reason to put up with menstrual periods.

People sometimes seem alarmed when women claim total control of their bodies. After all, few of us object to people having treatment for cancer, pain, infections, diseases and injuries or even cosmetic surgery—all of which disrupt the course of nature. We are happy for women to choose medical interventions which enable them to have children through IVF or which save very premature babies—but, of course, such interventions can be considered as helping women fulfil their natural roles. I think individual women should decide whether to have children, or to breast feed them, or to stop having periods, or eschew menopause, or enjoy sex with as many partners as they like.

In our modern society, we are fortunate to be able to choose the unnatural path. To live well into our eighties, to not die of heart attacks or strokes at a young age, to beat cancer, to be able to choose how many children to have, and if we can’t have any by natural means to use IVF. Women no longer die in huge numbers in childbirth; we can control our own fertility; our careers and options are unlimited by old-fashioned concepts of what it means to be a woman. We can choose what is best for our bodies and our lives.

In many ways, natural is not best.

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  1. I agree with everything except the decision not to have children. The choice is definitely yours, but I’m not sure if this is the best choice. Like the decision not to be a father may be not the best choice for a man.
    When I, a very mature person, no longer very healthy, look into the huge glowing eyes of my granddaughters, I understand how wonderful life is. And, most likely, I did not live my life in vain. No benefits can replace this feeling.

    Sorry, Elizabeth

  2. The first commentary reminds me of the case of Chantal Sebire. A French teacher, Sebire suffered a rare form cancer called esthesioneuroblastoma. She refused the “conventional” treatment (i.e. surgery and chemotherapy) and chose to take an herbal treatment instead. Later, as her disease evolved to a monstrous facial diformity causing massive pain, she also refused morphine, and asked the French government the right to be euthanized, which was refused. She died by suicide.

  3. Elizabeth is talking more sense than I have heard in a long time. An endocrinologist colleague of mine used to get very hot and bothered at the term ‘Hormone replacement’ because the estrogen levels for postmenopausal women are in the range of the lowest level a young cycling woman has. This level is effective against bone loss, but is not enough in many women to prevent the gradual development of vaginal atrophy (which can be treated with local estrogen). While many women may not want to bother with such treatment for sexual function because they aren’t having sex, the fact is that vaginal estrogen also helps with incontinence. My poor mother wore some sort of protection for urine leaks for the last 30 yeas of her life – that is a tragedy that can be largely prevented.

    Although media portray the risks of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) as being due to estrogen, virtually all the problems (breast cancer, cardiovascular, etc) are due to the progestogenic component. This is necessary, because the estrogen causes proliferation of the endometrium (lining of the uterus), albeit slowly over a longish time compared to what happens in the first half of the menstrual cycle in young women. What is not well known by most gynaecologists is that the progestogenic component can be applied locally to the uterus with an IUD that secretes it. The problem with progestogenic IUDs is that they do seem to take 6-9 months to ‘run in’, but once over that they are good for 5 years. This means that the body is exposed to much less progestogenic agent. In my case, I could not take the oral progestogen at all due to it producing continuous ‘menstrual migraine’, but I can tolerate a Marina IUD.

  4. There is a Sam Harris cartoon: two cavemen are talking. one says “I don’t get it. Everything we eat is locally sourced and organic, we get plenty of fresh air and exercise but our life expectancy is 45” (approximately).
    I knew two women who got breast cancer (95% survival rate with treatment) who went for a natural cure and both died.

    1. Great cartoon quote – I don’t think a lot people realise how brutal nature really is. So sorry to hear about the two women with breast cancer, seems like a terrible waste. Elizabeth

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