Just because it's 'natural' doesn't mean it's safe


Friday, 06 April, 2018


Just because it's 'natural' doesn't mean it's safe

As manufacturers rush to fill consumers’ wants for ‘natural’, they need to be cautious about the source and manufacturing technique of their natural ingredients.

For some reason, natural ingredients are often assumed to be safe — possibly based on the seriously weird premise that ‘chemicals’ are all synthesised in laboratories while natural ingredients do not even contain chemicals!

This unfounded assumption is patently absurd! Just a quick look at a few plants is all that is required:

  • The African staple, cassava, must be thoroughly boiled and soaked to remove the cyanide before it is safe to eat.
  • Castor beans have to have ricin removed.
  • Death cap mushrooms have killed at least four people in the Australian Capital Territory in the last 16 years.

Regardless of the reasoning, consumers are seeking natural products with ‘clean’ labels with the erroneous assumption that they are safe and will even support their health and wellbeing.

Manufacturers are capitalising on this misinformation/urban legend and sourcing natural ingredients from non-traditional materials and altering manufacturing processes to meet consumers’ demands.

The following extract from ‘Natural’ Ingredients in Dietary Supplements for Sports Nutrition: Unfounded Assumption of Safety, by Julie A. Brickel, MPH, Burdock Group Advisor eNewsletter, April 2018, burdockgroup.com makes very interesting reading.

Changes in source materials

Manufacturers have found traditional sources of natural ingredients are either exhausted or have become too expensive to maintain profit margins. An example is resveratrol, a popular ingredient used in sports nutrition supplements reported to increase endurance. Grapes are arguably most commonly thought of as a source of resveratrol and, consequently, as is wine, with red grapes containing three- to 10-fold more resveratrol than white grapes. However, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is reported to contain the highest concentrations of resveratrol, with the roots containing greater amounts than the stems and leaves. Resveratrol was first isolated from white hellebore (Veratrum grandiforum) almost 80 years ago, and other sources include, pistachios, peanuts, plums, tomatoes, mulberries, cranberries, cocoa, apples and grapes. More recently, microorganisms (eg Escherichia coli strains) are being genetically engineered to synthesise resveratrol to reportedly increase the production and purity of resveratrol as compared to botanical sources. The takeaway message is that there are many sources of resveratrol, each source containing varying concentrations of the ‘natural’ ingredient in addition to other constituents that may or may not be chemically characterised and/or considered when assessing the potential toxic effects of the resveratrol co-extractives. Important questions to consider are:

  1. From where is the resveratrol sourced?
  2. Has the safety of the resveratrol co-extractives been assessed?

Changes in manufacturing techniques

Manufacturers may change manufacturing techniques to either increase production, utilize ‘natural’ solvents or target a different chemical constituent within a ‘natural’ source material. There is a trend toward ‘bio-solvents,’ ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ solvents (eg ethyl oleate, ethanol, water, supercritical CO2), resulting in a reduction in use of traditional solvents, such as hexane. The use of non-traditional solvents presents the potential to produce products with different co-extractives, or, at the very least, products with different ratios of extractants than those produced with traditional solvents.

Beetroot or beet root juice is an example of a traditional ‘natural’ botanical that is now being manufactured to target a specific chemical constituent within the root for use in dietary supplements for athletes. Inorganic nitrate (NO3-) is reported to be the biologically active ingredient in beet roots that increases plasma nitrate concentrations in consumers and supports physiological responses to exercise. Although data are limited and results are conflicting, the proposed mechanism of action reported for beetroot is that it, “dilates blood vessels in exercising muscle, reduces oxygen use and improves energy production.” With manufacturers producing beet root juice rich in nitrate, the concentrations of nitrates — in addition to other constituents and contaminants — must be taken into consideration when assessing the safety of such dietary supplements.

As manufacturers strive to meet athletes’ demands, ‘natural’ ingredients are being sourced from different source materials and the manufacturing processes are evolving. These and other changes call into question the safety of these newly sourced or newly processed ‘natural’ ingredients, as there is opportunity for variations in the chemical composition as compared to traditional ‘natural’ products. These variations need to be considered when assessing the safety of dietary supplements containing ‘natural’ ingredients. The safety of ‘naturally’ sourced ingredients cannot be assumed on the basis of their ‘natural’ origin or the history of (safe) use of traditional ‘natural’ dietary ingredients that vary in chemical composition.

Brickel’s complete article, including references, can be found at http://burdockgroup.com/natural-ingredients-dietary-supplements-sports-nutrition-safety.

So there you have it; it is not just consumers who need to be aware of the feel-good halo around ‘natural’. Even manufacturers must be conscious of the source and manufacturing techniques of the natural components in their products.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Paul Hakimata

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