Archive for April, 2014

“Natural” is a friendly word. It conjures green, growing things, blue skies, clear water, winsome wildlife. It is the antithesis of all things man-made: cold concrete, sterile steel, loathsome landfills. The word “natural” seems to strike something deep in our psyche, perhaps a longing for things we miss as we race from home to work and back each day. Things like trees, wildflowers, and babbling brooks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarketers know this about us. We can’t seem to help but believe that natural is good. Natural is safe. Natural things are, well… natural. What could be better?

Natural claims frequently appear on products meant to be ingested or used on our bodies. Apparently if we aren’t going to eat or wear it, we don’t much care if it’s natural. Take cars or cellphones, for example: no natural assertions there! I suppose it makes sense that “natural” labeling in food, health supplement, and cosmetic marketing would be so ubiquitous. If I eat it, drink it, or put it on my skin I’d rather it didn’t make me break out in a rash, stop breathing, or develop cancer. If it’s natural, it won’t, right?

Unfortunately, “natural” is NOT a synonym for “safe.” Radon is natural. It’s an element found in rocks and soil. It’s also radioactive and the second leading cause of lung cancer. Consuming rhubarb leaves can cause convulsions and coma. Munching on mistletoe berries will kill you. Hundreds of other substances easily encountered in nature are both natural and unsafe.

So, depending on my mood, I either giggle or rant when I hear phrases like, “It’s safe, all-natural, and it’ll work for you—guaranteed” shouted from the TV or radio. I always wonder, “What’s their definition of natural?”

Some people say natural foods are the ones that don’t contain chemical ingredients. Food writers like Michael Pollen espouse this rule: if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. The idea is that if you read the ingredients list and it includes chemical-sounding substances like phenylalanine, glutamic acid, or ethyl butanoate, you should avoid that product and reach for something natural, like a banana.

Natural Cheetos: the best of all worlds?!

Natural Cheetos: the best of all worlds?!

Some people say natural foods are the ones that don’t contain genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), weren’t treated with conventional pesticides, or (in the case of meat, milk, or eggs) don’t come from animals treated with antibiotics or hormones.

What do the regulators say? In case you wondered, in the U.S. there are no FDA or USDA regulations for the use of the word “natural” on food labels. Therefore, a “natural” claim on one label may not mean the same thing as a “natural” statement on another.

Personally, I try not to succumb to “natural” labeling. I’m convinced of the safety of GMOs. I’d rather rinse off a practically undetectable amount of pesticide residue from an apple than eat a worm. I know livestock treated with antibiotics didn’t suffer needlessly with illness and a withdrawal period was followed so my meat and milk are antibiotic-free. I know rBST used in dairy cows doesn’t change their milk, and that there’s a heck of a lot more estrogen in a potato than in a steak from a hormone-implanted steer.

And those unpronounceable chemicals I mentioned earlier? They are just a few of the many chemical components of a banana.

Country Fair Blog Part

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2014 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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