Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

I know anything from a plant is safe to eat, but anything from a lab can be dangerous. How can I tell if something came from a plant or a lab?

Category: Health      Published: December 18, 2012

autumn crocus
The autumn crocus is deceptively beautiful. This flower is deadly if ingested. The symptoms resemble those of arsenic poisoning and there is no known antidote. "Natural" does not mean "safe". Public Domain Image, source: USBG.

Not everything from a plant is safe to eat. Some of the most dangerous substances come from plants, not from laboratories. Cyanide is natural and is deadly. Backyard plants such as poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac should never be eaten. Mind-altering drugs like marijuana, tobacco, and cocaine all come from plants. Eighty four varieties of mushroom are toxic according to the book "Clinical Toxicology" by Marsha Ford. Even kidney beans are toxic when eaten undercooked, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (The FDA states that kidney beans must be soaked for at least five hours and boiled for at least ten minutes in order to deactivate the toxin. Slow cookers that do not bring the beans to a boil do not render them safe.) Many berries are poisonous, even ones on plants that otherwise provide edible substances, such as asparagus. Even deceptively beautiful plants such as wisteria, foxglove, or hydrangea will make you sick if ingested, according to the A.D.A.M Medical Encyclopedia. Too much licorice can give you dangerously high blood pressure. As another example, herbal tea made from poppy seeds has killed several people because of the lethal levels of narcotics that can occur naturally in the tea. In general, it is a good idea to not consume any wildflower, herb, berry, seed, mushroom, or herbal tea until you have done some research and are certain it is safe.

Additionally, just because someone has taken a plant, put it in a pill, and is selling it as an herbal supplement does not make it safe. Most herbal supplements are not regulated by the government the way medicine is. As reported by Dr. Anna Licata in her review study, "Herbal Hepatotoxicity: a hidden epidemic," herbal pill sellers market their products as food and thereby avoid all drug regulations. They do this despite the fact that the herbs are used for their drug properties. Prescription medicine has strict safety measures in place at every stage of its existence: from the research and testing stage, to the drug approval stage, to the point where a licensed doctor prescribes it, and finally at the point where a certified pharmacist distributes it. Herbal pills have none of these safety measures in place. As Dr. Licata states, "There is ample evidence indicating that herbs may have harmful effects and produce adverse interactions with prescription drugs as well. This would suggest that the side effects of herbal products are often underreported. Unlike prescription drugs, there are no databases linking herb consumption to later medical problems." Eating water hemlock root, which is easily mistaken for parsnip, will kill you almost every time. Properly taking a prescription stomach acid reducer will never kill you. The bottom line is that plants and herbal supplements can be more dangerous than medicine from a lab because herbs have just as powerful drug effects but don't have the safety regulations in place.

bottle of pills
The safety of medical pills is ensured through a long chain of testing, regulation, licensed doctors and pharmacists. The same is not true of herbal pills. Public Domain Image, source: FDA.

Even if "natural" did mean "harmless" and "healthy" (which is a dangerous viewpoint), there is very little that is "natural" these days. Herbal supplements claim to be natural, and therefore healthy, but they have been processed and chemically altered to end up in pill form. Even chewing on a fresh tomato from your garden may not be as natural as you think. The tomato seeds you bought from the store are the culmination of centuries of human intervention including cross-breeding and other forms of genetic engineering. Eating a truly natural food would require moving to an unknown island that man has never touched and eating its wild herbs. But I wouldn't recommend it, as you would probably discover the experience to be neither harmless nor healthy. The misconception that "natural" always equals "safe" and "man-made" always equals "unsafe" extends beyond herbs. For example, some people may consider cell phones and microwaves dangerous because they are man-made. But the sun bombards humans with radio waves more consistently than cell phones, and with microwaves more consistently than ovens. Rocks in the ground and distant supernovae bombard the average human with more nuclear radiation than next-door nuclear power plants. The natural mineral named "asbestos" causes fatal lung diseases. Lightning bolts can electrocute people just as easily as downed power lines. Even plain old water can kill you if taken in large quantities (a condition known as dilutional hyponatremia). For every man-made danger, there are worse natural dangers of the same type.

Topics: alternative, chemical, healing, herb, laboratory, man-made, natural, organic, synthetic, toxic