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.