“Natural” Is Bullshit

It’s time to clarify this most misleading of food labels

Paul Greenberg

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“NYTimes: Going Organic 1981–2009” by blprnt_van is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

For anyone with a deep, enduring faith in the meaning of nature, it may come as something of a shock to learn that the word “natural” means nothing at all — at least when it comes to the business of marketing processed food. Every year, U.S. corporations sell tens of billions of dollars worth of food products labeled as “natural.” Yet, to this day, the Food and Drug Administration has never formally defined the term. The word is a kind of orphan child, undefined by government, misused by industry and without a provenance or a use for the average American consumer.

In fairness to the FDA, pinpointing natural is a tricky thing to do. As the agency states on its website: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” In 2016, in what can now be interpreted as an exercise in bureaucratic futility, the FDA issued a public call for comments on what exactly natural should mean. Five years and two presidential administrations later it’s worth circling back to natural and seeing where we stand and how to move forward.

Castoreum, a commonly used compound that gives foods a raspberry-like taste, is mostly derived from beaver anal glands.

At first blush it would seem self-evident: a natural product should have only natural things in it, right? But a quick perusal of some of the ingredients that appear regularly in our foods seem, well, kind of unnatural. Castoreum, a commonly used compound that gives foods a raspberry-like taste, is mostly derived from beaver anal glands. L-cysteine, another natural amino acid used to extend the shelf life of baked goods often comes to us from feathers and human hair swept off the floors of barber shops.

Information like this has made some in the food-reform movement want to ban the word “natural” altogether. We already have “organic,” which came about after a 10-year-long throw-down that left many bruised and more than a few inflamed. Big Agriculture sought a watered-down definition of “organic.” Lobbied by industry, the Secretary of Agriculture created rules…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org