Consumers biased toward drugs labeled 'natural,' study shows

Tauren Dyson
People think drugs labeled natural are safer but that may not always be the case, according to a new study. File Photo by stevepb/Pixabay
People think drugs labeled "natural" are safer but that may not always be the case, according to a new study. File Photo by stevepb/Pixabay

March 27 (UPI) -- People say "read the label" before buying a product, but sometimes labels can instill a false sense of security -- or bring up more unanswered questions.

Researchers say people think drugs labeled "natural" are safer, because of a preference for "natural" products, according to research published this month in the journal Medical Decision Making. The work used data from five separate experiments that examine the preference for natural versus synthetic drugs.


"Our work appears to show that people believe natural drugs are safer than synthetic drugs, and that belief seems to partially drive their choices," Brian Meier, a researcher at Gettysburg College and study author, told UPI.

He wanted to do the study after constantly "hearing frequent comments from friends and family that were stated in this way: 'it's natural so it cannot hurt you.'"

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"Our first paper on this topic was published in 2016 after we decided to determine if such comments were mere anecdotes or actual beliefs of people in general," Meier said.

The 2016 study found that nearly 80 percent of people, with all other considerations equal, will choose the natural product over a synthetic one.


For the new study, the researchers offered college students the choice between "natural" or synthetic pain relievers in five separate experiments involving a total of 1,125 people.

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In a pilot experiment, a survey, the researchers found participants viewed the term "natural" to be a more positive term than the word "synthetic," which they said reveals a bias. In experiments one and two, the participants were offered a choice, overwhelmingly choosing "natural" pain relievers: 86 percent in one and 93 percent in the other.

For experiments three and four, the researchers offered context to choosing between the two by assigning a medical condition and rational appeal for using a natural or synthetic product. In these cases, the researchers report, safety and effectiveness based on a medication condition mediated the participant's bias.

The word "natural," researchers say, makes customers feel confident that the product is safe because it "conveys a sense of positivity and safety." And since the Food and Drug Administration doesn't give a formal definition of the word, there's nothing to dissuade customers of that belief.

Natural substances like arsenic and botulinum are both deadly if consumed by humans. On the other hand, a synthetic drug like metformin is commonly used to control blood sugar.


Products like cigarettes, various food items and cleaning products often have the word "natural" labeled on their packaging but aren't necessarily safe if consumed.

"We can all (us included) be educated consumers and do our homework before using drugs in general, natural or synthetic," Meier said. "We would suggest that consumers do their due diligence and research the safety and effectiveness of any drug before taking it. It seems advisable that drug choices should be based upon this factual information rather than a label of 'natural' or 'synthetic.'"

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