I recently posted something about sugar on social media. The overarching message of the post was, ‘natural isn’t always better.’
As I expected with a post about sugar, I got a few negative comments:
‘Natural is always better,’ said one commenter.
‘Isn’t natural better than refined?’ wrote another.
Ask anyone what they think the label claim ‘natural’ means, and you’ll get a lot of the same responses. Things like:
No toxic pesticides (FYI: organic farmers use toxic pesticides, too)
The truth is, that certain foods need to be processed and refined so they’re fit for consumption. That doesn’t mean they’re less healthy, or even ‘toxic.’
White sugar is still ‘natural’ – it comes from sugar cane or sugar beets that are refined into crystals. Just because it’s bleached, doesn’t mean it’s less healthy than brown sugar. Brown sugar is brown because it still has molasses in it. It’s not healthier than any other sugar, and newsflash: it’s still refined.
Maple syrup comes from maple sap that has been boiled down. You wouldn’t want plain maple sap, it tastes disgusting.
Milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria. Listeria, anyone? Didn’t think so.
The FDA’s definition of ‘natural’ – “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color” that “is only minimally processed” – leaves the term ‘minimally processed’ open to interpretation. The definition also doesn’t take into account whether a product contains pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, or if it’s genetically engineered in any way.
It also says nothing about quality (see: Cheetos ‘Simply’ – same old Cheetos, just made without artificial colors and flavors, marketed to look ‘healthier’).
Organic Gatorade, which seems to be the ‘healthier’ choice, is basically the exact same as the regular stuff.
Even ‘natural’ cigarettes are perceived as being less harmful to health than regular ones, and we all know that’s silly.
It’s easy to understand why people would believe these things. I mean, think about it:
The perception of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ = happy animals frolicking in a sunny, flower-filled field. Ah, nature!
The perception of ‘refined’ or ‘processed’ = machines and scary chemicals.
Or at least, that’s what comes to mind, even though the world’s deadliest poisons are, in fact, natural.
Oh hello, botulinum and ricin!
As far as chemicals, everything we eat is made of them. Don’t believe me? Here’s the nutrition facts for very ‘natural’ cherries:
Here’s what’s in your cup every morning:
(Both of these graphics were developed by the great James Kennedy from Monash University.)
Wow, some of those chemicals really sound scary! But they aren’t harmful.
Guess what else is made from chemicals?
Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, chlorine, to name just a few – all chemicals.
Chemicals aren’t necessarily toxic or scary. And since everything is made up of chemicals, even things we believe to be ‘natural,’ have them.
Knowing full well that we’re more likely to purchase food items that are labelled as ‘natural,’ food companies have misused that designation for decades to give a health halo to foods that don’t necessarily deserve it.
But when a food label has the words ‘natural’ on it, we trust that food to be safer and healthier than foods that aren’t labelled as natural. (and here). We’re buying into it, too – It’s a health-halo that translates into big dollars for companies: a recent survey by Consumer Reports found that 87% of consumers said they’d pay more for a ‘natural’ product.
This trust seems to extend to the ‘organic’ label, too. It’s why some people believe that organic brownies, mac and cheese, and tortilla chips are ‘healthier’ than their conventional counterparts, even though they aren’t. Not even a bit.
Turns out, a health-halo on a label is worth everything. Even when it means, well…almost nothing.
‘Natural’ labelling has been so confusing to consumers, that there was a kerfuffle recently that ended up in a lawsuit around Hormel’s ‘natural’ claim on one of its ham products.
It was determined that although Hormel’s ‘natural’ ham was not significantly different than its other (apparently ‘unnatural) products, the company would still be able to advertise the ‘natural’ one as such.
And Quaker Oats was sued in 2016 because the herbicide glyphosate was found in their product that was labelled ‘natural.’ (The case, and an appeal, were dismissed). Herbicides aren’t included under the ‘natural’ package claim.
So, why do we automatically believe that natural is better?
Turns out, we have a ‘naturalness bias,’ and there’s research to prove it.
A 2019 study actually looked at our bias towards all things natural, and why we think this way.
Researchers theorized that the preference towards ‘natural’ may actually be evolutionary. In that, we ‘lived in and depended on nature for survival.’
They also found, as other studies have, that we have feelings of ‘perceived safety’ about drugs labelled as ‘natural.’ When asked to give safety ratings for a synthetic medication and one that was ‘natural,’ participants rated the ‘natural’ medication higher.
This explains why there’s so many people online selling ‘natural’ cancer cures, while at the same time, saying how ‘toxic’ chemotherapy is. But unfortunately, just like food, when it comes to medicine, natural isn’t always better. Research shows that people with breast or colon cancer who choose alternative cancer therapies instead of conventional ones like chemo, are nearly five times more likely to die of the disease.
One of my favorite lines from the 2019 study above is:
Natural substances such as Botulinum Toxin and Arsenic are poisons that can cause death when people are exposed to small amounts.
Furthermore, synthetic substances are not inherently bad. Tylenol and many Anti-Cancer Drugs are synthetic substances and are beneficial for humanity. Overall, sometimes natural sub- stances are good or bad and sometimes synthetic substances are good or bad.
They aren’t wrong. And I don’t really want to live my life without Tylenol or the option of anti-cancer drugs, if I should ever need them.
And let’s not forget the best example ever: vaginal birth is ‘natural.’ C-sections? Not so much. But my life, and the life of my two daughters, were saved by the C-section procedure.
In short, the claim of ‘natural’ doesn’t mean a food or product is healthier, or better, in any way.
It doesn’t mean much of anything at all. Buy ‘natural’ foods if you want, but be aware of what you’re getting.