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It may be ‘natural’, but is it healthy?


Amanda Lyons


26/03/2019 11:13:07 AM

RACGP supports the TGA’s move to ensure advertising claims of ‘natural’ ingredients in therapeutic goods are not misleading.

Natural medicine
Just because an ingredient is labelled ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean that it is effective, or even safe.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is on a mission to improve consumer protection from misrepresentative advertising, with its Therapeutic goods advertising code that having taken effect at the beginning of this year.
 
As part of this mission, the TGA now aims to provide greater clarity for advertisers and consumers about the terms ‘natural’ and ‘naturally derived’.
 
‘The RACGP is pleased to see the TGA is tackling this issue of potentially misleading claims in advertising of therapeutic goods,’ RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon told newsGP.
 
‘Just because an ingredient is “natural” it does not immediately follow that it is better, or even safe, and consumers need to be fully informed to ensure they have the best and safest outcomes.’
 
Associate Professor Mark Morgan, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care, agrees people can have a tendency to erroneously conflate ‘natural’ with ‘good’.
 
‘People think that natural medicine is healthy or safer, but some poisons are natural, for example; so there can be misunderstanding or a potential for misuse,’ he told newsGP.
 
In an environment in which it can be difficult for consumers to distinguish marketing claims from medical efficacy, Associate Professor Morgan believes it is vital for them to be provided the most accurate information.
 
‘The reality is, people have to make decisions between products that have been tried and tested, found to be more effective than placebo, and not too harmful, alongside a number of complementary and alternative medicines that have not been through the same rigour of testing,’ he said.
 
The RACGP was invited to comment during the TGA consultation on the issue and is strongly supportive of its recommendations, adding its own concern that information about quantity and concentration of naturally derived ingredients must also be included in a way that is easy for consumers to understand.
 
‘I’d very much like to see the public be informed about equivalent amounts in a form that makes more sense than milligrams,’ Associate Professor Morgan said. ‘I don’t think many of the public have access to, or the will to look up, the milligram equivalent in the original biological specimen at the point of making decisions.
 
‘For example, if you’ve got a product that contains natural grapefruit or garlic, it would be useful to know the number of garlic cloves or segments of grapefruit to which it would be equivalent.
 
‘A product being sold to patients who think they’re getting a lot of the natural ingredient may contain a lot of a diluting agent and a tiny amount of the natural ingredient. People may also buy something that’s got huge excesses compared to what nature would provide, thinking that it is equivalent to what they’d be taking in the diet.
 
‘Without any guide to how much of an ingredient there is [in a product], it’s hard for the public to make that decision.’

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From left: RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon is pleased to see the TGA tackling the issue of potentially misleading claims in advertising of therapeutic goods; Associate Professor Mark Morgan believes people often mistakenly associate ‘natural’ with ‘good’.

The RACGP also emphasised the need to ensure that misleading claims are properly monitored by the TGA, and infringing companies appropriately penalised.
 
‘It’s important the TGA clearly specifies the consequences that may be faced by companies that do not comply with regulations – there’s no point having regulations if companies are not monitored and called to account for failing to meet them,’ Dr Nespolon said.
 
Associate Professor Morgan believes the measures proposed by the TGA are an important piece of the overall ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of regulating advertising of therapeutic goods, and would even like to see them applied more widely to provide better outcomes for population health.
 
‘There’s a case to be made for extending the same sort of rigour of description to dietary supplements and health claims on food packaging,’ he said. ‘I see lots of poor food choices being marketed with health claims, or with things that are interpreted by patients as health claims even if they are not direct health claims.
 
‘The concern is that if you’re making dishonest claims or purposely making claims that can be interpreted in a dishonest way, the general public will be making poor choices.
 
‘There’s a waste involved in that, an opportunity cost, because if the person has a problem that needs some help fixing, some of the treatments that have low evidence might actually get in the way of lifestyle change or therapeutic medication use.’



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