‘Natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘chemical-free’ are terms often used to market everything from baby care and makeup to personal hygiene products.
But are they safer for babies, children and adults to use than traditional products made with laboratory, or synthetic ingredients?
Independent publishing company, Research Review invited a number of leading experts to examine both the phenomenon of ‘chemophobia’ (an irrational fear of chemicals) and consumers concerns around ingredients, labelling and regulations in baby and personal care products.
The research highlights the important considerations that parents should bear in mind when forking out for ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ products. One of which is that consumers are not aware that many natural ingredients have actually undergone far less extensive testing into their safety, and that there is very little regulation around use of the term ‘natural’.
Consumers shell out 2–5 times more for products that fall into the ‘naturals’ category – and it’s a booming industry. Between 2013 and 2015, consumers in Australia and New Zealand increased spend on natural or organic personal care products for babies by a whopping 64%.
Here, James Kennedy, one of the independent experts that consulted on the Research Review papers, explains everything you need to know about the safety and effectiveness of the products you’re buying and using on yourself and your family.
Q. What defines a ‘natural’ product?
“‘Natural’ is defined differently in different countries. Technically speaking, almost nothing is natural because human influence is now so pervasive. On product labels, ‘natural’ ranges from meaning ‘made from naturally-occurring ingredients’ to ‘having only minimal processing’ (Canada), or having no legal meaning at all. Consumers expect natural products to be milder and are expected to pay more for them – whereas this is not always the case.”
Q. What about ‘organic’ products?
“‘Organic’ certification is granted by various bodies in different countries. Broadly, farmers need to adhere to certain rules in order to have their produce eligible for ‘organic’ certification. These processes include not using agricultural chemicals on their farms that don’t occur in nature.”
Q. What are the issues around ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ labelled products?
“In many countries, ‘natural’ can be applied to almost anything. In Australia, for example, marketers can put ‘natural’ onto any product and sell it until it’s complained against and recalled by the ACCC. No checks exist before the product goes on the shelf. Natural products have undergone far less extensive testing than synthetic ones; are much more variable because their ingredients vary depending on the seasons, climate, weather and time of picking; and natural products are subject to much less regulation than synthetic ingredients.
“There’s a misunderstanding parents have that ‘natural’ = ‘good/safe/harmless’. This isn’t the case: many harmful things are natural, for example botulin, and many synthetic things are life-saving, such as EDTA.
“A comprehensive review by legendary toxicologist Bruce Ames found that 99.99% of the pesticides we eat daily are naturally-occurring within plants themselves. For example, caffeine, sinigrin [found in some plants like brussels sprouts, broccoli, and the seeds of black mustard] and goitrin [a goitrogenic substance isolated from rutabagas and turnips]. It also found that that natural and synthetic compounds were equally likely to test positive in standard carcinogenicity tests.”
Q. Are natural and organic products safer than synthetic ingredients?
“Whether something is natural or synthetic tells you nothing about its effect or toxicity. The safety of a product depends on (a) its ingredients, (b) the amounts in which it’s used and (c) how exactly it’s used. As I mentioned, the major study by Bruce Ames found that natural compounds were no safer than synthetic ones. Natural is not a proxy for ‘safe’.”
Q. What is ‘chemophobia’?
“Chemophobia is an irrational fear of compounds perceived as synthetic. It can manifest itself as a crippling fear of pesticide residue, parabens, gluten, BPA, or SLS. To be called ‘chemophobia’, the fear needs to be irrational, i.e. the fear far outweighs the threat.
“Sometimes, no threat exists at all – but marketers and the media have spun threats into existence. Examples include ‘organic’ food, the ‘Paleo diet’, anti-GMO, anti-vaccination, and the chemtrails conspiracy. Some people’s chemophobia develops to the point of being a mental disorder that requires rehabilitation. Chemophobia can be prevented and treated through education – a better understanding of risk and the role of ingredients in our foods and consumer products.”
Q. Are consumers being duped by mislabelling?
“It’s worrying that marketers can put ‘natural’ on anything and use it to take advantage of consumers – particularly new parents, who are more willing to part with their hard-earned cash because they want the best for their baby.
“Parents are being made to feel guilty about using normal products, and instead are being told to spend up to five times as much money on a ‘natural/organic’ variant of the same product – when its effect on the baby is exactly the same.
“Marketers are making parents feel guilty for not spending the extra money by implying that the normal brands are somehow toxic or harmful for their baby. They then exploit this guilt by offering an expensive solution to a non-existent problem.
“Regulations are so loose in this industry that small companies can get away with shoddy labelling until their products eventually get recalled by the ACCC – which only happens occasionally and is slow to happen when it does. Routine checks of products and labelling claims are almost non-existent.”
Q. What should parents bear in mind when purchasing ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ products?
“Ignore the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. ‘Natural’ is meaningless on labels, and ‘organic’ doesn’t guarantee that the product will be any different from the non-organic variant. Also: just relax. Take advice from reputable parenting resources that have been recommended to you by your Maternal & Child Health Nurse. Invariably, they’ll tell you not to waste money on marketing gimmicks like ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘gluten-free’. Your Maternal & Child Health Nurse will also tell you to relax… Don’t stress yourselves out over non-existent poisons. It borders on paranoia. Parents: don’t let the stress spoil this very special time in your lives.”