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?