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Archive for the ‘food safety’ Category

Rho in woods

I constantly long to be connected to nature.

When was the last time you sat in the soil, strolled through a forest, or splashed in a stream? How many birds have you taken the time to listen to today?

If you’re like me, you long to do these things but rarely have time. Days go by when my feet touch only asphalt, concrete, or flooring, and my ears note only engines, voices, and HVAC systems. We’ve structured our human lives to mostly separate ourselves from nature; from dirt, discomfort, and inconvenience. In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the often-unrecognized disconnect—the unanswered longing to experience nature—that results.

When farmers lament, “Kids these days just don’t know where their food comes from,” I believe they are describing a consequence of this disconnect. After all, what is agriculture but the intersection of humans and nature to produce food? Those who engage in food production are closer to nature on a daily basis than most of us. Outside of agriculture, kids (and many adults) these days don’t know where their food comes from.

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Is this “natural” ketchup safer or healthier than other brands?

I believe that another symptom of this disconnect is our insatiable drive for “natural” things. Walk the aisles of a grocery store, browse personal care items on Amazon, or scroll through posts on Facebook and you’ll see hundreds of examples. It’s as though we know deep down we need to stay connected to nature, so instead of a walk on the prairie we don’t have time for, we reach for Nature Made® Echinacea supplements.

Nature is beautiful. Nature is essential. Nature is necessary for our survival.

But.

Repeat after me: “Natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.”

I used to say I’d rather consume a substance produced by a plant than one developed in a lab. I remember the pleasurable little rush of self-righteousness I got from saying so out loud. “Natural” meant green plants waving their leaves against a sunny blue sky, not unidentifiable people wearing lab coats and goggles against a backdrop of fluorescent lights and stainless steel.

Then I started following credible science and agriculture organizations online. Whether discussing food ingredients, crop production, or medical advances, the topic of whether “natural” equates to “safe” comes up repeatedly. And what the science keeps pointing out is that “natural” things are often very dangerous.

Take apricot seed kernels. Aside from the fact that they are rock-hard and not very tasty, there’s a doggone good reason we don’t eat cherry, peach, or apricot pits. They contain a chemical compound called amygdalin, which, when eaten, releases cyanide—a poison. Search online for apricot kernels, though, and you’ll find dozens of retailers selling them and many articles touting their use as a cancer treatment. Supposedly, cyanide kills cancer cells. Maybe it does, but in doing so it may kill you as well. Nevertheless, because it grew on a tree and is “natural,” it must be safer (some think) than chemotherapy, which seems decidedly unnatural. Scientific evidence shows that apricot kernels are not safe, but the belief persists.

The quest for apricot kernels is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as “appeal to nature,” or the argument that “natural” things are good, therefore “unnatural” things are bad. It is so convincing that we see it constantly in product marketing. Food manufacturers advertise the replacement of “artificial” flavorings and colorings with “natural” ones. Genetic modification is perceived as unnatural, so the Non-GMO Project seal now appears on thousands of products from cinnamon to sea salt despite there being only ten commercially-available GMO crops. Organic production prohibits the use of most synthetic fertilizers and crop protectants, so consumers assume foods labeled “organic” are natural and thus safer. It’s increasingly difficult to find a package label that doesn’t include the word “natural” or “nature.”

And yet (repeat after me), “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Whether or not something is natural is irrelevant to its safety. Many natural things are amazing, even life-saving. Some will kill you. The same is true of synthetic, “unnatural” things. Toilets, toothbrushes, and trucks are not natural, yet they improve our lives. Safety hinges not on whether a substance is natural or synthetic, but on how much of the substance you are exposed to. Drinking too much clean, pure (natural) water can kill you. So can a truck.

By all means, get back to nature. But remember, “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the August 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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“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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