The current trend is to always opt for “natural” products, because we assume they are better for us. But what is natural really? Everyone’s definition seems to vary slightly, including the people labeling our food. There’s a good chance you aren’t as natural as you think you are.
Natural vs Organic
A lot of times natural food and organic food get thrown into the same category, but they are actually very different. The FDA refuses to define what “natural” means, but they do give a brief description. By FDA standards, natural food “does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” That means all those GMO’s people are freaking out about can be in any product labeled as natural.
In fact, here’s a list of things allowed in natural food – but NOT in organic food:
- Growth hormones
- Sludge & irradiation
Here are some extra requirements to be classified as organic, that are not required for food labeled as natural:
- Animal welfare requirements
- Cows required to be on pasture for pasture season
- Audit trail from farm to table
- Certification required, including inspections
- Legal restrictions on allowable materials
Click here to read about the organic label and what all is required to get the official organic label for food products. Interestingly, the ingredients have to be 95% organic to get the organic label. To use the term “made with organic ingredients” only requires that 70% of the ingredients be organic.
When I think of natural food, I think of foods that are found in nature like vegetables, fruits, cows and chickens. Just because these things are “found in nature” doesn’t necessarily mean they were naturally occurring before humans lent a hand though.
Did you know that broccoli is man-made? I never would’ve guessed.
Just like we’ve created nearly every breed of dog that exists through years of crossbreeding, we have done the same with our food. Except, it’s called genetic hybridization.
By the way, that’s not the same as genetically modifying food like in the case of GMOs. There is no altering at the DNA level, just crossbreeding certain qualities in and out.
Here are 4 common foods that were not originally naturally occurring in the wild:
Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, lettuce and brussel sprouts all come from the same wildflower, brassica oleracea. The original wildflower produces skinny stalks 3-7 feet tall with little yellow buds at the top.
Carrots also come from a flowering plant, daucus carota. Unlike the carrots we buy in the grocery store, wild carrots are only safe to eat when they are young. Eating wild carrots that are too mature can result in painful lesions that come from reaction to UV light.
Bananas have been bred from musa acuminata and are very different from their ancestor. Modern bananas have been bred so much that they can’t even reproduce without human intervention, because the seeds have been bred out. So all the bananas we eat are just clones from the same cutting.
I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the stubby bananas with all those seeds in the middle as much.
The almond is actually a seed of the almond tree. The almond fruit contains glycoside amygdalin, which transforms into hydrogen cyanide after being crushed or chewed. Apparently as little as 12 of those bad boys contains enough cyanide to kill you.
Somehow, as early as 3000 BCE, humans figured out which trees had more cyanide than others. We still don’t know how early humans did that, except by persistent trial and error. Almonds are pretty good, so I guess it was worth it.
So even our natural and organic foods aren’t always naturally occurring without human manipulation.
Of course, it’s not just plants that we’ve tampered with – we’ve even hybridized animals we eat.
- Cows originally came from the auroch, which is now extinct.
- Pigs originated from wild boar
- Our chickens originated from red junglefowl
I’m not trying to make the point that none of these things are natural. I’m simply questioning what we define as natural. I’m also making the point that we always need to keep an open mind before writing something off as natural or unnatural.
But Natural Foods Don’t Have Chemicals in Them
I hate when I hear that phrase. Do you realize how dumb that sounds? Everything is made of chemicals, even water is a chemical. Speaking of chemicals and water, check out the EPA’s list of regulated contaminants in our tap water. That’s a lot of chemicals.
We have to stop using phrases like “food without chemicals” or “unprocessed foods.” All of your favorite boxed or canned organic foods are highly processed.
We need to be specific about what good and bad qualities we want in our food. There’s a difference between a hot dog which is a blend of several meats and nitrates and a can of organic beans with a little salt as preservative. Those are both processed foods though. So don’t be so quick to use broad categories for everything, use some judgment.
Vitamins Aren’t Always Natural
Most vitamins you buy are completely synthetic and not naturally derived. Which of course is the big issue with prescription drugs, they are synthetic or “made in a lab” as people like to say.
Personally, I feel a lab is the absolute best place for vitamins to be made – even the naturally extracted vitamins. Why wouldn’t you want your supplements made in a sanitary and quality controlled environment?
Even vitamins that are naturally extracted are not natural in my opinion. Vitamin C powder doesn’t grow on trees, oranges do. There is nothing natural about a Vitamin C capsule. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a fact.
You should look at all factors when deciding if something is good for you or not. Don’t just rely on whether it is natural or unnatural.
OTC vs Rx
For some reason I notice that people seem to think that over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs are so different. In reality, many OTC drugs were once actually prescription drugs that were later reclassified.
Every year thousands of people are killed by OTC drugs – just like thousands die from prescription drugs. So don’t be so quick to jump on big pharmacy companies if you aren’t going to hold OTC drug manufacturers accountable as well.
In the sports world people like to debate about who is natural or who is enhanced, meaning they use performance enhancing drugs. With the amount of synthetic compounds found in many sports supplements, they aren’t any more natural than steroids are.
There is nothing natural about a bottle of protein powder or creatine powder. Again, this doesn’t mean they are bad. They just wouldn’t be available without help from human technology. The only difference between being a natural bodybuilder and an enhanced bodybuilder is what drugs are legal or illegal. Even though most steroids are available legally in synthetic form, designed to convert to the original drug once digested.
Look at the big picture, OTC drugs are synthetic drugs made in a lab just like prescription drugs are and just like many of your health supplements that you think are natural.
Everything that exists on Earth is made up of elements that come from Earth. Even the equipment in the lab that synthesizes drugs is made up of elements from the Earth.
What does natural really mean? I say it means something that occurs in nature without human interference. If that’s the case, then there is nothing natural about a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.
Maybe it’s time we accept that sometimes natural isn’t best. More importantly, it’s time people stop acting like they are better than others because they live a more natural lifestyle or only eat natural foods. There is nothing natural about the lifestyle we live in America or any other industrialized country for that matter.
Sometimes natural is better and sometimes it isn’t. Everything isn’t black or white. Very rarely does anything or anyone have only good or bad qualities. Everything has a mix of good and bad qualities and we are obviously seeking things with more good qualities.
All that being said, I do still try to eat mostly whole foods. However, I don’t really label certain foods as healthy or unhealthy. Some are just better than others. I also don’t really look at prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs any differently. I like taking supplements for my health and I believe in them, but I don’t think for a second that they are natural. I’m very thankful that humans have actually found ways to extract and synthesize vitamins, minerals and herbs in fact.
Well, that’s my take on it. How do you define natural? Let me now in the comments.
Until Next Time,
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