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What Makes Food “Natural” Anyway?

What Makes Food “Natural” Anyway?

Last summer I made cheese. I did this, while donning a hairnet and wearing a lab coat in a very well-regulated facility, with an expert cheese maker never more than three feet away. All of the milk we used to make the day’s batch of cheese was collected that morning from a few dozen pasture-raised dairy cows that lived as naturally as one could imagine. The milk we were working with was raw (unpasteurized) and as pure and natural as milk could be. We added natural enzymes and rennet to curdle and commence the cheese making effort, and timed everything to a “T.” At the end of the day, while we didn’t exactly have cheese, we had the makings of a very fine, raw milk, artisanal aged cheese that was the epitome of wholesome, natural goodness. But really, how natural was it? In essence, with all of the mixing, and manipulation, we were making a highly processed product; although it was not processed cheese, it was certainly cheese that had been processed.

In the wake of the Proposition 37 takedown in California earlier in the month (this was the ballot initiative that, had it passed, would have required all manufacturers of genetically modified foods to say as much on their packaging), the discussion about what is “natural” food is as heated as ever. Proponents of the defeated labeling law wanted every GM item to be labeled as such, and the right of being labeled “natural” only falling to food items that could be proven to be such. But as we have learned over the years, the term “natural” is slippery, at best.

Even though there have been moves to clearly define the marketing term “natural” over the past decade or so, the terminology is largely meaningless marketing speak, used to evoke some wholesome, just dropped from nature quality used to sell tofu treats and corn chips. But the fact is, the vast majority of food we eat has been altered by human hands, if not wholly transformed. This is true for the recently departed Twinkies, as it is about virtually anything made with corn, a product that has been carefully bread and tweaked for centuries.

But still the dispute about what is natural endures. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against food manufacturers because of their “natural” claims, including Nature Valley Granola Bars, Frito-Lay who manufactures SunChips and Tostitos, as well as Kashi and, of course, ConAgra. Some have been somewhat successful in their efforts, but largely such lawsuits just underline how ill-defined the language surrounding things like “natural” might be.

What to do? Do we abandon the “natural” claim, only to be cannibalized by duplicitous multinational corporations peddling dubious products? Or do we enact some sort of legislation to take it back and make sense of years of confusion?

Read more: Blogs, Conscious Consumer, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Health, , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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3:12PM PST on Dec 30, 2012

I think we should have honest labels on our food. It is the peoples right to know what we are eating. It's as simple as that. If a company is failing because they are selling gmo and no one wants it then find a different product to sell instead of manipulating us with a play on words to trick us into buying it. I'm sick of being lied to and manipulated and tricked and ripped off. It isn't hard and I'm not asking for much. Just a little honesty. :(

9:28AM PST on Dec 1, 2012


9:04PM PST on Nov 30, 2012

thanks for sharing.

10:56PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Forget "natural" as a label, that's BS- arsenic is natural; do I want it in my rice? No. I just want all ingredients to be on the label including GMOs.

10:43PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Thanks for sharing

8:42PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Well, cheese has been made for millennia. GMO food not so long.

4:30PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Thanks Eric for the very good article and pointing out the dilemma regarding the terminology and definition in label. It will be no easy task to make sure consumers know exactly what they are buying.

3:41PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Thank you for sharing!

10:52AM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Processing is very different from adding chemicals. That is why we are in trouble because the media keeps on printing misinformation that people believe is the truth. It is time to carefully examine and report on what is exactly happening with regard to the food we eat, water we drink, air we breath, pills we take and the way we power our planet. Who knows what the truth is anymore? Without the facts we are unable to make good decisions. Look familiar to what is happening to our world. We better deal with the FACTS very soon or we are going to be poisoned by our own lies.

9:38AM PST on Nov 27, 2012


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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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