Our misguided fetish for “natural” foods

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Fresh Frozen Vegetables: Which is it?

The supermarket has become a festival of oxymorons.

Fresh-frozen peas. Jumbo shrimp. Boneless ribs. Chanukah ham.

And the most common of all:  Natural food.

If you are eating wild-caught fish or mushrooms gathered from the woods, you’re eating natural food.

Otherwise, probably not.

There’s nothing “natural” about agriculture, whether it’s practiced on the industrial-sized soy and corn fields  in the midwest, on the sprawling fruits and vegetable farms in the Salinas Valley of California or on the local and regional farms whose owners truck their crops to the  7,800 farmers’ markets across America. Agriculture is, by definition, about the management of nature– fertilizing the soil, getting rid of weeds, insuring that crops get the water they need. Even if you grow a few tomatoes or cucumbers in your backyard, you’re enjoying the product of decades of selective breeding.

The misguided fetish for the “natural” is a problem for a couple of reasons, as I’ll explain. But first, if you doubt that the claim of “natural” is a selling point, take a look at a few of the labels that I came across the other day at the Whole Foods Market in Bethesda, Md., where I live:

Back to Nature

Red Jacket

Izze

Kettle Potato Chips

 

Earth Balance

These illustrate is the first, and less important, reason why our preference for “natural” food is a mistake: The word means almost nothing, although manufacturers who use artificial colors or flavors could theoretically run into trouble if they put the label on their products. (A Colorado woman last year sued Campbell’s Pepperidge Farm over the claim that its Goldfish crackers are natural because they are made with genetically-modified soy.)  On its website, the FDA explains:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Certainly “natural” does not mean “healthy”:

121115_FOOD_NaturalTostitos.jpg.CROP.article568-large

So caveat emptor next time you shop.

The second, and more important, objection to the preference for “natural” food is that it could stifle innovation.

This gets to a bigger question: Why do so many of us have a reflexive preference for foods that purport to be “natural” and, by extension, an aversion to foods that are processed or rely on technology? 

We embrace technology in most arenas of our lives–our cars, our homes, our TVs, laptops and phones–but, when it comes to food, many of today’s most influential writers and thinkers unabashedly seek to return to a simpler, but not necessarily better, past. If you’d like to be a locavore, by all means, feel free, but know that we’ve tried that before: It was called the Middle Ages.

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Graybeh

Of course, food is different from an iPhone. It’s personal. It’s cultural. It’s traditional. Often, it’s religious. It’s a storehouse of memory. I fondly recall the butter cookies known in Arabic as “graybeh” that my Syrian-Jewish grandmother baked when I was a little boy; that was a past well worth saving.

Having said that, unlike Michael Pollan, I don’t want our food choices to be restricted to the things that my grandmother ate in the 1960s, or her mother ate decades earlier.

I’m a fan of Pollan, the most influential of the wholesome-food advocates, and his book Food Rules is, for the most part, a reliable guide to good eating. But rules like “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” and “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t” and “Regard non-traditional foods with suspicion” stand squarely in the way of innovations that are good for the environment and for our health.

I’m thinking, in particular, about several startup companies that I’ve come across that are expressly designed to produce food that is healthier or better for the environment or both–but these foods could be no stretch be described as natural.

Hampton Creek Foods makes what its founder, Josh Tetrick, says is a healthier, safer, environmentally-friendly, plant-based ingredient for egg-based food products. [See my blogpost, What’s for breakfast? Time to get Beyond Eggs] Lately, I’ve been enjoying a product called Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein that tastes like chicken, but has a lighter environmental footprint and a more favorable health profile. Recently, I wrote about the challenges facing a salmon aquaculture company called Verlasso which is running up against the anti-GMO policies of Whole Foods. [See my Guardian Sustainable Business story, Will a failure to consider GM hold back sustainable fish farming?]

Verlasso’s salmon, Beyond Meat’s “chicken strips” and Hampton Creek’s egg substitute, which is called Beyond Eggs, are all processed foods, to be sure. But they are all arguably superior to the “natural” alternatives.

The challenge for all of us is to get beyond the simple dichotomies that characterize so much conversation around food. Natural vs. processed. Local vs. global. Small vs. big. Genetically-modified vs. conventionally bred. Organic vs. everything else.

Better to ask: Does this food taste good? Is it good for my health? Good for the planet? Good for the workers who produced it? Affordable? What about animals?

Those are harder questions, of course. But they shouldn’t take away your enjoyment of a good meal. If anything, they should enhance it.

Comments

  1. Chuck Palmer says:

    Great piece. For the last 20 years, whenever I hear anyone tout a product because it’s “natural”, I say “so’s strychnine.” ( a natural rat poison)

  2. Marc – Nice summary. In the end most of these distinctions are proxies for a bigger issue which is far more about food safety than sustainable food production practices. Consummers mask and confuse their real fears about ingesting deadly chemicals with poorly defined aspirations of “sustainable farming” practices.

    But there is some logic to it and arguably a win-win:

    – “local” really means fresh and fewer fumigants and preservatives (not necessarily fewer GHG emissions);
    – “small” means more relative labor and less ability to use expensive chemicals (not exactly returns to family farms);
    – “organic” implies some of the worst chemicals are excluded by regulations(but water and soil conservation not guarenteed);
    – “natural” means reduced need for chemical preservatives and binders (rather than a vote for avian biodiversity) and
    – “GMO-free” really says I do not want Monsanto’s chemical cocktails (rather than decrying GMO’s invasive potential).

    So prefering local, small, organic, GMO-free, natural products equates to a sensible risk reduction strategy for minimizing exposure to more deadly chemicals. Naturally, there are some ecobenefits that help justify the prices and help people sleep at night. But let’s remember food safety and staying away from methyl ethyl death remains the real driver for Whole Foods surging sales.

  3. Brucy D. says:

    Ditto to Dave G. and I add that “Whole foods” is not MY store of choice. While they are very accommodating to my pallet their yuppy-non-controversial social stand feels disingenuous when one considers “organic and naturals” struggle to become widespread. I prefer the open market approach but boycott walmark.

    Intelligent use of technology is just smart. {Smart is Sexy} The middle ages are nice to visit and even therapeutic but I wouldn’t want to live there!

  4. B Anderson says:

    Nice post … I view it the same way and have for years. Many people, it seems, have lost the ability to use logic and common sense.

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