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A Lot of Terms Belong on a Food Label — ‘Natural’ Isn’t One of Them

Everything, due to its existence alone, could be seen as part of an all-natural continuum.

By James McWilliams


A Whole Foods aisle. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

About 10,000 years ago, direct human intervention into pre-existing ecosystems fundamentally changed the way we ate. The late Middle English term for this endeavor became the one that stuck: agriculture.

The advent of agriculture was a human game-changer, initiating a gradual transition away from gathering, scavenging, and hunting, to browsing comfortably down the stacked aisles of Whole Foods Market, where the healthy (and wealthy) shopper can now fill her responsibly sourced bag with fresh meat, produce, and dairy — foods that we’d easily call “natural.”

But what exactly makes this food natural is altogether unclear. The educated layman would probably define natural food as that which is minimally processed. Seems reasonable. But 10,000 years of tinkering with crop genetics, not to mention 20 years of transgenic modification, hardly seems to qualify as natural. Google wild corn, bananas, or carrots and it’s clear that the versions we eat today are artificial distortions borne of convenience — botanical bastards of the original at best.

This question of what’s natural has been a heady topic typically reserved for food studies university seminars. But with the Food and Drug Administration having just completed its public comment period for defining a “natural” label, the scope has become more consequential. As Reason’s Baylen Linnekin points out, comments to the FDA were so scattered (and inane) that they bode poorly for any prospect of a reasonable top-down definition. Plus, he rightly adds, “It’s not as if government agencies are very good at this defining thing.”

Linnekin is also correct to suggest that the “natural” designation might be better debated in the courts, where tedious and expensive lawsuits will (one hopes) diminish the term’s appeal to food marketers. After a 2013 lawsuit was brought against Chobani for its “all natural” language (used on products that did, in fact, include an additive), a slew of food manufacturers — including Goldfish, Naked juice, and Puffins cereal — voluntarily tossed the “all natural” label into the sea of verbal jetsam, most likely to avoid similar legal hassles.

“Natural in the context of food is a word that once had valuable use.”

That’s all for the good. But anyone who strives for a more forthright understanding of the food we eat might also entertain some hope that any hesitation to deem a product “natural” reflects more than a fear of legal retribution. As with any labeling debate — say, genetically modified organisms — there’s always the welcome likelihood that we might actually emerge with a deeper insight into what we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s marketed.

One indication that we’re edging closer to appreciating the inherent vagueness of “natural” comes from John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods. In an email exchange, he explained that “natural in the context of food is a word that once had valuable use.” It was, he noted, a way to make “an important distinction between foods such as apples, kale, carrots, black beans, almonds, brown rice, and salmon from marshmallows, Coke, Jell-O, Tang, and Kool-Aid.” But now, he wrote, “the term has become overused and definitely abused.”

Moreover, before the FDA sought to define “natural,” it tacitly conceded the hazards inherent to such a task, with its officials calling a natural food product one in which “nothing artificial or synthetic” has been added that “would not normally be expected to be in the food.” But then FDA representatives further noted that it’s often “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.”

The label “product of the earth” — unless you are a hunter/gatherer/scavenger — includes either everything or nothing. In this sense, it’s worse than a meaningless designation; it’s one that distorts the entire history of agriculture, not to mention the hidden continuum of food processing that often happens to bring even seemingly “whole” products to the table.

One response to this conundrum might be to get a little philosophical and declare humans to be an integral part of nature, and in turn to deem whatever we fabricate from nature as ipso facto natural. Termites construct prominent mounds. Humans build skyscrapers. Who is to say one structure is any more or less natural than the other? A chimp fashions a stick into a feeding tool. A farmer wields a scythe to harvest grain. Is there a fundamental difference? Everything, due to its existence alone, could be seen as part of an all-natural continuum.

It’s a cool concept. But a food label isn’t the place to work it out. “Perhaps the word ‘natural’ can’t be used any longer to effectively distinguish really healthy and nutritious food from the junk that dominated people’s lives,” Mackey writes. “But such differentiation still remains of paramount importance if we wish to renew the health of our nation.”

So what to do without “natural”? Maybe a better way to evaluate the quality of what we eat — and, at the same time, curb the tendency of producers to mislead consumers about the virtue of their food choices — would be to follow the simple advice given long ago by journalist Michael Pollan: “Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce.”

We could even take it four steps further and stick to foods that don’t need labels at all — foods that, however unnatural or natural or semi-natural they may be, stand naked and, in all their glory, speak for themselves.