Of course, smart consumers already know that “natural” as a marketing term as used on product labels is meaningless. You can go to the snack-food aisle and buy Cheetos labeled “natural.” It has no set definition (although it might soon, thanks to the FDA) and you can basically slap it on any random thing that you want to sell and hope some harassed and time-crunched shopper sees “natural,” assumes it’s healthy, and buys it.
But completely putting aside the use of “natural” as a marketing label (where dishonesty is basically guaranteed because…marketing) what about the idea that legitimately natural foods are somehow inherently better for your health?
There’s nothing inherently healthy about being “natural,” and you can actually make a strong case that we can’t even get “natural” foods today at all. But “natural” is still useful as a mental shortcut – as long as you understand its limitations.
Is Anything Still “Natural?”
There’s actually an evolutionary case to be made for foods that humans haven’t tinkered with – coevolution with those foods means that our bodies might be better adapted to them. It has nothing to do with being morally “good” or “bad” or more or less “pure” or whatever; it’s just biology. But the problem is that all of our foods have been tinkered with at this point. Where do we draw the line?
Almost all of the foods we eat are products of human engineering. Take bananas. Most of us intuitively see a fresh, raw banana as “natural.” But that banana is the heir to thousands of years of selective breeding to make it bigger and sweeter, with smaller seeds. Bananas as nature made them are small, fibrous, and full of annoying seeds. The bananas you can buy at the grocery store are the products of human engineering. So are they still “natural”?
It’s not just bananas. Apples, chickens, cabbage, cows, pigs, strawberries…if an intensive process of breeding out “undesirable” qualities and breeding in “desirable” qualities makes a food “unnatural,” then nothing is “natural.”
But maybe you think selective breeding is OK; it still counts as a “natural” food. Then at what point does the food become unnatural?
- When we spray pesticide of any kind on it? Does it matter what kind? Does it matter if the pesticide is organic or synthetic, considering that it all does the same stuff and organic pesticides haven’t been proven to be any safer than synthetic ones?
- When we speed up the process of selective breeding with genetic engineering?
- When we grow it in a hydroponic lab instead of a field?
- When we subject it to some amount of processing? Does cooking count? Does it have to be something you couldn’t do in a home kitchen?
- (for animals) When we feed it a diet that the animal wouldn’t eat in the wild, even though the animal wouldn’t even exist in the wild without human breeding?
The point is not that any one of these definitions is “correct.” The point is that there is no one absolute and “true” definition of “natural.” Vegans think eating meat is unnatural; Paleo folks think eating grains is unnatural. It’s almost a gut instinct at this point, and different people have different gut instincts.
“Natural” is Not Necessarily Good.
Even though nobody can actually agree on what “natural” even means, a lot of people use it as a synonym for “good” in a very absolute sense. In logical terms, this is called the naturalistic fallacy.
The naturalistic fallacy goes like this: natural things are good because they are natural. And correspondingly, unnatural things are bad because they are unnatural. Note that this is very different from the justification above (that natural things are more likely to be good because of coevolution). The naturalistic fallacy is a quasi-religious faith that nature is good because it's natural, with no other justification needed.
The naturalistic fallacy is obviously nonsense, and what’s more, you know it’s nonsense.
Here are some 100% natural (at least by most people’s definition) things:
- Botulinum toxin (the most dangerous toxin known to man)
- Snake and spider venom
- Parasitic infections
- Poison ivy
And here are some completely unnatural things:
- Central heating
- Smartphones and computers
- Glasses and contact lenses
- IV fluids for people who are sick and dehydrated
- Year-round access to fresh vegetables and fruits
And yet everyone, even the people most insistent that natural foods are better “because they’re natural,” uses central heating, glasses, and IV fluids. In practice we all do understand that “natural” isn’t always better just because it’s “natural.” Nobody is calling for us all to rip out our radiators and install firepits in every house and apartment. Nobody is calling for everyone with vision problems to just blunder around the world bumping into walls because it’s “not natural” to have a pane of glass in front of their eyes.
You can probably think of a few other “unnatural” things you wouldn’t want to give up. Some natural things are good; others are not. Some unnatural things are good; others are not. “Natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and “unnatural” is not a synonym for “bad.
But People Need Shortcuts!
So why is the obsession with “natural” foods so strong even when nobody can agree on what “natural” means and even when we all understand that plenty of “natural” things are bad and plenty of “unnatural” things are good?
Because “natural = good” is a useful shortcut for making decisions.
We get confronted with so much information every day that it’s impossible to analyze it all carefully. Think of how many decisions you have to make in just one grocery trip. You can probably choose from at least 5 or 6 types of olive oil, 10 different brands of mustard, 15 different kinds of eggs…if you sat there seriously deliberating each choice, you’d be there all day! Just to survive in the world without going crazy, we have to take mental shortcuts. “Natural/unnatural” is one of those shortcuts.
Now there’s the good news: it’s probably fine to keep using “natural/unnatural” as a shortcut, as long as you know it’s a shortcut and not an absolute truth.
In practice, most foods perceived as “natural” are healthful for reasons totally unrelated to their “naturalness” (whatever that means). Most people’s instinctive understanding of “natural” includes apples and eggs and kale, and excludes Coke and Snickers and Cosmic Brownies. Making snap judgements based on what seems “natural” to you will usually lead you away from processed foods and towards more nutrient-dense foods with fewer gut irritants. Those "natural" foods aren't healthful because they're "natural;" they're healthful because (among other things) they're nutrient-dense and low in gut irritants. They're healthful for reasons that we can actually prove with science, not with a vague feeling about "naturalness." But as a mental shortcut, the perception of "naturalness" works pretty well to find those nutrient-dense, gut-friendly foods without having to look up all the nutritional information and studies on each particular food, which would be impossibly tedious and time-consuming.
But be aware that “natural/unnatural” is just a shortcut for identifying foods that are more healthful for reasons totally unrelated to their “naturalness”). The real point is the evidence of health benefits from those foods. “Natural” is just a reasonably accurate mental shortcut that acts as a “flag” for those health benefits. It’s not a health benefit in and of itself. It’s just something associated with health benefits.
This means that…
- “Natural/unnatural” is not a legitimate way to counter arguments based on actual evidence.
- If someone has evidence that a food has health benefits, “it’s not natural” is not a legitimate argument against it.
- If someone has evidence that a food causes health problems, “it’s natural” is not a legitimate defense.
Summing it Up
As a marketing term, “natural” is meaningless and the best response is to ignore it. As a gut instinct, “natural” is a basically accurate guide to foods that are more likely to be nutrient-dense and less likely to be gut irritants – but “natural” is only associated with those health benefits. It’s a good shortcut, but it's not a health benefit in and of itself, and we shouldn’t take it for one.