This passage is to be taken both metaphorically and literally (as in my theological position) in the sense that this tree's fruit had such significant side effects it affected the whole of mankind.
But, with the number of plants that are not good for us to eat, we might even dare to look at this verse at face value for the purpose of this article. Indeed, it might well be very good for us to know which is which. Even if you object to this verse there are ample Biblical evidence for plants that are non-edible or poisonousness.
Although many plants are nutritious and we could not live without them as foodstuffs, some perfectly natural plants contain poisons. Just because something is natural, doesn't mean it is good for us to eat. Usually our bodies can detoxify small amounts of potentially toxic compounds, but some are very potent indeed.
On the other hand, even 'good' substances necessary for life, such as oxygen and water, are poisonous if taken in large enough quantities. Some vitamins and minerals are only needed in tiny, tiny amounts by the body and too much can do us harm.
This article will look at various ways that 'natural' substances may – or may not – be good for us. Recently, this was discussed in particular relation to herbal medicines on "The Conversation": (theconversation.com)
Since plants cannot run away from predators such as animals or insects, they have chemical defences to help them survive and even communicate with each other and summon beneficial organisms to come and help. (au.christiantoday.com)
Some of these chemicals can harm humans, who are merely predators from the plant's viewpoint. A few of the common, natural plants and poisons are: cyanide (from many plants, including unripe almonds and peach seeds), seeds of potato plants, leaves of rhubarb, some mushrooms and toadstools, 'belladonna' also known as 'deadly nightshade', hemlock, foxglove, oleander. (www.livescience.com/11356-top-10-poisonous-plants.html)
There are many more. Documentation of the traditional Australian Aboriginal use of plants, including poisons (for example to kill fish) can be found at: (asgap.org.au; www.soe-townsville.org; www.anbg.gov.au)
Many people, by their own choice, knowingly consume natural bioactive or toxic substances, but not usually in sufficient quantities to kill them. I am thinking of caffeine, nicotine (one of the most poisonous substances known), alcohol, kava, cocaine (from the coca plant, NOT related to cocoa), heroin (from opium) and many halluciongenic substances!
Yet all these things are all natural.
Modern medications derived from natural sources
Some of the toxic substances from plants or micro-organisms have been extracted and modified to make useful pharmaceuticals for us today. It is estimated that perhaps 70% of current medications are derived from natural sources. (news.mongabay.com)
Examples are: aspirin, which was originally modified from the salicylates of the willow bark, but salicylates are also common in many fruits and vegetables such as red apples and carrots; the heart-drug digitalis, originally from digitoxin in the foxglove plant; artemisinin, a malaria treatment derived from the Chinese sweet wormwood tree; and morphine, which is chemically derived from heroin in the opium poppy, which is grown under strict regulation in Tasmania. (www.launc.tased.edu.au)
There are interesting facts and discussions about this in a 3-part TV series: "Pain, Pus and Poison" hosted by Dr Michael Mosely. (www.ovguide.com)
Complementary or traditional medicines in Western society
Often information about ancient uses of medicinal plants, revealed to scientists by traditional peoples, has led to useful pharmaceuticals – this is the practice of ethnobotany and ethnopharmaceutical studies. (au.christiantoday.com)
Some societies still use the traditional herbal remedies in their original formulations. If we wish to try some of these to complement our doctor's prescriptions, we should be aware that what we buy commercially in western countries may have only little resemblance to the original preparation.
Any bioactive substance from the original herbs may or may not be present in our purchase; and even if the active ingredient is there, it may be in a concentration that is too low to be effective or so high that it could be dangerous.
There may also have been substitutions of one effective herb by a cheaper, ineffective one. Yet all of the ingredients, active or not, may be perfectly 'natural'.
And even when the active compounds are known, they are not analysed and tested for safety like the rigorous processes that are in place for our pharmaceuticals. Recently, it was found that aristolochic acid, a common component of herbal remedies used for a variety of ailments, can cause urtinary-tract complications in the long term. But it is totally natural. (www.sciencedaily.com)
Proprietary vitamin, mineral and sports supplements
Are you confused by the various different 'health' supplements advocated to promote your well-being? Do you wonder how much is just advertising spin?
Vitamin deficiencies usually only occur when a person is poorly nourished or has a medical condition that prevents correct metabolism of some vitamins. In these cases, vitamin supplements are necessary; and your doctor may also recommend them for some other reason (such as pregnancy) where a boost of vitamins is a precautionary measure. However, some studies have shown that they probably won't help you unless you have a diagnosed medical condition. (www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/news/20131216/experts-dont-waste-your-money-on-multivitamins; www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/news/20131216/experts-dont-waste-your-money-on-multivitamins)
And if you do need supplements, there is not much that is 'natural' about what you will be prescribed. Vitamin C, for example, is obtained from batch culture of micro-organisms, which have been bred over generations or genetically engineered to produce heaps of the stuff. It is chemically identical to the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in fruits and vegetables, and will be just as effective, but would you regard it as 'natural'?
The sports drinks and medications that advertise 'giving you a boost' possibly contain other chemicals such as caffeine, which is not a vitamin but is a stimulant, even though it is also a 'natural' ingredient. If so, this would be listed on the label. Guarana also contains caffeine, plus some other components that occur in tea.
Many of these drinks also contain a lot of sugar. Although this is also a totally natural substance, it has been highly refined by a long manufacturing process. I, like many others, have benefitted from cutting down on between-meal extras – particularly those containing sugar. If you don't want these extras in your drink or supplement, then check what each component on the label means.
The need for preservatives
Another perfectly natural process is rotting. On the forest floor or in your compost, this is a necessary part of nature. Micro-organisms and insects digest the leftover fruits and fallen leaves and droppings from animals, and recycle them as nutritious soil so that new plants can grow and in their turn nourish other beings such as ourselves. The same process, when it occurs in the food in our fridge (or the things we forgot to put back in the fridge) is called 'spoilage' because some of those micro-organisms – or the toxins they produce - can make us sick; the food is therefore 'spoiled'.
For the sake of public health, therefore, we use various sterilisation and pasteurisation processes to remove some of the pathogenic bugs in our food. In other cases, we add small amounts of preservatives to make sure the 'bad bugs' do not grow, or to keep the insects away. Some of these compounds are derived from natural products, such as the sugar in jams and preserved fruits and the vinegar in pickles. (Vinegar is made by fermenting with 'good bugs' to keep out the 'bad bugs'). Others might be small amounts of various salts - which still could be 'natural' minerals - or other manufactured compounds that have been extensively tested as being safe to eat.
These preservatives must be stated on the label. Unless you are allergic to them, then it is probably safer to eat a small amount of an 'unnatural' product in your food, than to submit your food to the more natural rotting process or insect infestation.
Becoming informed; making your own decisions
You might also like to reflect on how 'natural' are food mainstays like bread and beer and wine and ginger beer and cheese and yoghurt. These foods, like vinegar, come to our supermarket via very highly-controlled manufacturing processes that utilise pre-digestion by beneficial micro-organisms (actually the first part of the natural 'rotting' process). This makes safe, tasty and convenient foodstuffs that are good for us to eat. But how natural is it? And does it matter?
At the other end of the spectrum, it is true if a manufacture advertises a chocolate bar to be made from 'all natural ingredients' though it may contain nothing but sugar, cocoa powder and vegetable oils … and maybe a sultana or two.
So is 'natural' always 'good for you'?? Perhaps it is sometimes more convenient, or even healthier, to eat a product that is not quite as nature intended. If you take some of the advertiser's jargon with a grain of (natural, but highly refined) salt and try to understand more about the labelling, you will be able to make up your own mind.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html