Natural does not always mean healthy.
Health and "wellness" trends hawked online are often ridiculous, but occasionally they can also turn out to be dangerous. This was highlighted recently when a woman reportedly had to go to the hospital after livestreaming herself eating a poisonous plant, which she mistook for aloe vera. Eating aloe vera raw is a popular health trend, and livestreams of eating the plant became particularly trendy among young women in China last month:
The 26-year-old Chinese blogger posed with two large stalks in a video called "aloe vera feast," before biting into one of the leaves. In a clip which has now gone viral, she can be heard saying "not bad," then taking another bite and saying, "Wow, very bitter. So bitter," before the stream cuts out. The leaves are not aloe vera and appear to be from the agave americana plant, which is poisonous and can cause throat burning and irritation. Multiple reports state she went to the hospital with burns and sores in her mouth and throat.
While many outlets identified her as a "health blogger," I wasn't able to verify this. However, eating aloe vera raw is a popular recommendation within the "wellness" blogger world, with various writers claiming it's a superfood that can do just about everything, including "halt the growth of cancer tumors." In truth, there's not much evidence aloe vera does anything, even for sunburns, and it can actually give you the runs if you eat it raw. It's even worse, obviously, if you mistake aloe vera for something actively poisonous. Either way, it's an important reminder that pseudoscience can be dangerous, and that natural doesn't necessarily mean safe.
"The underlying assumption is that if it's natural it's healthy and safer than things produced by humans. But that just isn't the case. It's a fallacy," Tim Caulfield, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, told me.
Some natural or pseudoscientific "wellness" practices are harmless; If dropping $85 on a bag of rocks makes you feel more connected to your higher self, have at it. But there are also times when it can get dangerous, and the agave livestream is just the latest example. From amber "teeth necklaces" that are a choking hazard for babies to Gwyneth Paltrow's never-ending stream of risky wellness advice (like sticking a jade egg up your vagina or purposely getting stung by bees), these trends often bypass any sort of scientific advice or vetting as companies prey on consumers.
In extreme cases, like the parents whose son died after they tried to use echinacea to treat his meningitis, or the "wellness warrior" blogger who died after trying to treat her cancer with coffee enemas, they can be deadly. Suddenly, wellness trends go from mock-worthy to heartbreaking, and it's why critics like Caulfield don't take these subjects lightly.
"You couple the myth of 'natural is better,' with the myth of 'chemicals are bad,' and it creates a dichotomy that allows this kind of behavior to seem sensible," Caulfield said. "You layer on top of that market forces, where these ideas are being used to sell products, and it gives these ideas even more cultural traction."
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