A recent survey by the National Consumers League (NCL) in the US shows that 75% of Americans believe that products labelled 'natural' should contain at least 90% or more natural ingredients and that 86% of those questioned believed such products were safe.
This, however, is far from the truth, according to NCL president, Linda Golodner. "The reality is that natural isn't always safe, and products with the 'natural' labelling are not required by law to contain only natural ingredients.
"Our survey shows that consumers think of words like 'safe' and 'good for me' when they think of natural, but across the board - from prescription drugs to food products - many of these natural claims are misleading at best."
The NCL's research showed that claims relating to natural or plant-derived products were not limited to just dietary supplements and herbals, however. The same claims were found on many prescription medicines, over-the-counter medications, foods, personal care products, and cosmetics.
The report also looked at the current state of regulation of such claims, and suggested that clearer definitions among all types of 'natural' products would be necessary to help consumers understand the meaning of the word.
As an example, the NCL cited the case of Anso Comfort Capsules which are promoted as a 'natural' herbal dietary supplement useful for treating a wide variety of illnesses, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These were found to contain the undeclared prescription drug chlordiazepoxide, an addictive controlled substance used for anxiety and as a sedative which can be dangerous if not taken under medical supervision.
The distributor recalled the product and consumers were warned to immediately stop using the product, the NCL said.
Furthermore, the NCL said, the California Department of Human Services discovered in a random sample of herbal stores that 32% of these 'natural' remedies contained either heavy metals (such as lead, arsenic, and mercury) or undeclared pharmaceuticals.
The problem is that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not specifically define or regulate the use of the claims 'natural' or 'plant-derived' for drugs, either on prescription or over-the-counter. While drug labels or advertisements cannot make false or misleading statements under US law, this is exactly what is happening in many cases, the NCL said.
For example, the marketers of Cenestin, a prescription hormone replacement therapy drug, claim that the product contains estrogens that are 100% plant-derived. However, a recent analysis indicates that the estrogens are only about 65% plant-derived, with the balance derived from petrochemical feedstocks, the NCL said.
Labels are playing an increasingly important role in the health and lifestyle of consumers, and so it is vital that they are made aware that not everything they read on the label may in fact be the truth.
"Just because something is on the shelf at the grocery store or drug store does not mean it's harmless," said Golodner. "When taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements, consumers must always be cautious of interactions with foods and medications and possible side effects, even if the product is labelled 'natural'."