Like a Scolded Cat

All systems of thought have terms of praise and blame. In the world of the new food, a central term of praise is the word natural. It is only natural, therefore, that we take a look at it.

A particular food is described as “natural,” or perhaps even “all-natural.” We all know enough to know that this is supposed to be taken as a good thing, but what does it mean exactly?

There are a series of questions that I think we need to work through. First, what does it mean to say that a food is natural? Secondly, does this food in fact match that description? Third, if it does in fact match that description, is it good or bad? In short, what are we talking about, is this what we are talking about, and if it is, does it matter?

Let us walk through this process with one variable. Is it natural to cook food? Once we have answered that question, we can ask if this food is cooked. And last, we may ask if it is bad to eat cooked food, whether it is natural or not. The first question defines the term, the second applies the definition to a particular food, and the last asks whether natural is an appropriate term of praise in this instance.

Some of these questions are harder than they look. In fact, all of them are. What is “natural” about baking bread? If we grind grain for the flour, how much artifice is allowed? Is it natural to cook oats that are whole, but unnatural to cook oats that are rolled? You are doing something extra (to release nutrients) when you roll them, but is that bad? Human ingenuity is being applied to the oats, but we are also doing that when we put them in a pot on the stove. Going back to the bread, in order to be natural do we have to eat the grain the way Christ’s disciples did, rubbing the grain in their hands?

But suppose we get past this hurdle, and we have defined natural as something culled from nature, and not too much fooling around with it either. Let us say that we have also defined “fooling around,” limiting it to six steps at the factory. Now take the example of pure vanilla and its nearly identical sister vanillin. What is the difference between them? One is the extract of an orchid bean and the other is extracted from wood pulp. The problem is that wood is every bit as natural and organic as the orchid bean is. So you have to put artificial vanilla on that bottle, but in what sense is it artificial? The artifice that is applied is no different in kind than the artifice applied to the orchid bean.

Another great example is petroleum. There’s a natural product for you — right out of the ground, from the bosom of mother nature. Boil it off and you get sugars, and then flavor chemists can tinker with it and get you some stupendous flavorings that will take you back to strawberry fields forever. Suppose that the flavor chemists stayed within their alloted number of steps, such that we could not say they were fooling around. Is this natural?

Now suppose we have defined natural, and defined the limited number of steps to keep a product natural. We have determined that this particular product falls within that stipulated definition. Poisonous mushrooms can fit within the definition, and almond-flavored petroleum sugars won’t. And yet, the former will kill you dead, and the latter will top off your birthday ice cream, and make that day complete. Natural kills. Unnatural delights. Perhaps natural is a singularly bad word to describe what is good for us. And yet it is a word that is sought out and used by many because it leaves a lot of room for fuzzy thinking. Every time I see something advertised as “all natural and free of chemicals” I brace myself for the day — and it cannot be far off now — when certain food items are touted on the package as being entirely “molecule free.”

In sum, natural food that is genuinely natural is very hard to define. Once defined, it is hard to categorize various food without becoming arbitrary (which governmental agencies are good at). What would you call a bottle of orchid vanilla (80%) mixed with wood pulp vanillin (20%). What is that, besides being 100% organic? And last, once we have all this sorted out, we are no closer to knowing what is healthy for us.

This means that when I am lectured about the importance of eating natural, I feel like I am being urged, with great importunity, to remain in the western hemisphere. Can we narrow this down a bit?

And so this explains why, when harangued, I do not run off. I just sit there, like a scolded cat.



  • Robin Phillips

    “Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.” Oliver O’Donovan