The Nature of "Natural"

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If you go to the Organic Consumers Association website you will see that they are upset about the way that stores like Whole Foods market products as “natural.”  They believe (and they are probably right) that consumers will confuse this with “Organic.”  In fact there are no real rules about what can be called “natural” and savvy marketers have realized that almost everyone likes the concept of “natural” and they have tapped into that for selling power.

The problem for the Organic community is that their own, highly regulated farming system is also built on the concept of “natural.”  I have a good friend who was on the board of CCOF (California’s organic certification leader) back in the days when the definition of “USDA Organic” was being hammered out (1990-2002).  He explained that one reason it took so long was that there was a philosophical struggle between the Organic stalwarts who wanted it to be driven by what was “natural” and by the USDA that wanted to bring some science into what was safest and best for the environment.  The “natural” voices prevailed.

Is “Natural” always nice?

I’ve had some reason lately to be reminded that “natural” isn’t always so nice.  I stepped on a stingray and got a severe, first-had lesson about the potency of a toxin that is perfectly “natural”.    If you think about it, nature is full of nasty chemicals that are “natural.”  Aflatoxin that can be in grains and nuts is highly toxic and also one of the most potent carcinogens known. Ricin is another super-potent toxin.  Fumonisin causes birth defects.  Brevetoxin produced in “Red Tides” causes massive fish kills.  Even natural chemicals in our beverages and foods like alcohol, caffeine or capsaicin are more toxic than most modern pesticides and we consume them in far higher quantities.

What actually makes something safe or good for the environment is not whether it is “natural,” it depends on the properties of the specific chemical.  So marketing something with the implication that it is good just because it is “natural” can be a form of “green-washing”  whether its being done by Whole Foods or by an Organic food company.

Written by sdsavage

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