At the heart of the ethical food industry lies a strong desire for the “natural.” We want natural ingredients, grown organically, lacking chemicals, with no preservatives or artificial additives. This past Thanksgiving, for instance, Trader Joe’s had on offer an “all natural turkey,” a “minimally processed” bird with “NO artificial ingredients.” Worried about the cooking process? These roasts stay juicy through healthy brining in a “natural” salt solution. Earlier this month, the New York Times’ “how to go vegan” advice column suggests using nutritional yeast—a “natural food with a roasted, nutty, cheeselike flavor.” Products marked as “natural” command price premiums and increasing visibility. For now, they remain the minority of foodstuffs. We would do well to keep them that way.
When it comes to food, “natural” may well be the epitome of what environmental advocates call “greenwashing”—misleading labeling intended to convince consumers that certain products are environmentally friendly. Natural is not the only misleading health benefit listed on foods. Consumers of sugar packages labeled “no preservatives,” for instance, may wish to consider that sugar in fact is a preservative. Never mind the difficulty of finding a definition for “chemical” that doesn’t simply refer back either to “chemical processes” or “chemistry”—in other words the product of any human messing about with elements. In terms of natural food, the Organic Consumers Association notes that much of it contains GMO ingredients, does not follow organic guidelines, and includes additives derived in laboratories.
The word “natural” lacks meaning in any legal sense. The FDA has no regulations in place to define it but “has not objected” to its use in certain circumstances. The Canada Food Inspection Agency does set boundaries for using the phrase but also cautions that “advertisements should not convey the impression that ‘Nature’ has, by some mysterious process, made foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs.”
This last point is actually the more fundamental. Even exposés of “natural fraud” like OCA’s rely on an assumption that anything involving processing—however defined—must necessarily be bad. Natural remains shorthand for “good.” It implies that 1) such a thing as nature unadulterated by humans exists and 2) this is inherently desirable. Philosophers have pointed out problems with the latter assumption, noting the logical fallacy of Argumentum ad Naturam. Common sense should also warn against this usage of the term—lest we forget that poisonous berries grow in trees while scientists create life-saving medicines in laboratories.
The environmental history of the past several decades also shows us that “nature” has as complicated and contested a past as anything created by humans — probably because it is created by humans. William Cronon most famously tackled the idea of “wilderness,” demonstrating that the history of many of the preserves we consider wild reveal architects and designers molding the land to conform to their ideas of what “nature” should look like. Other historians have also shown the way in which the designers of national parks built intentional landscapes and manipulated the histories of Indian habitation in them to make them appear “wilder.” The fact that early non-European cultures still merit exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History means these scholars still have work cut out for them.
So, too, do historians of food. Fabulous food histories contest similarly absurd topics like the idea of “authentic culture,” that magic phrase that simultaneously claims cosmopolitanism while dismissing change over time and modern variations inherent to any group of people. Scholars, however, have yet to uncover the history of food billed as being “natural.” It is quite important that they do so.
Important for its own sake, but also because the conclusion of all this talk about nature—that natural must be right—has potentially pernicious consequences. The impulse is not new, and its history is not pretty. On some level concerns about natural food ironically stem from the same ethos—typically on the opposite side of the political spectrum—that views the non-human world as the product of divine will and therefore unchangeable. It comes from the same ethos, in other words, as the repudiation of homosexual or racial equality based on supposedly immutable laws of nature. From the same place as natural law philosophers, who used the concept of nature to argue in favor of everything from slavery to property to democracy. History and empirical research help us toss out conventional wisdom. And here is some that we must eliminate as quickly as possible.
Then we can have a more useful conversation about how to eat in a way that is best both for us and for the planet we inhabit. About what exactly we are trying to sustain when we mention sustainability. To be sure, the current state of our food system contains much in need of fixing. Urban “food deserts” create areas in which low-income people struggle to afford healthy food. Small-scale farmers across the world struggle to survive, as does a good deal of biological diversity. Antibiotics, hormones, and unsanitary practices create public health disasters. Yet we also keep more people alive for longer spans of time than at any point in human history. Only by acknowledging our complicated system’s specific shortcomings can we effectively target them and undermine the power of producers who profit from greenwashing. Talking about the “natural” implies the possibility of returning to some once-upon-a-time of biological bliss that has never existed. It is time to stop mourning the modern. It is better by far to accept our intricate participation in the constantly changing non-human world around us. Better to speak using words that have, well, meanings.