Naturally Confusing: Two Things You Need to Know from New York Times’ ‘Natural’ Debate

Lately, the use of the word 'natural' has become the source of much public debate, since the definition can vary by product, as opposed to terms like 'organic' that have a standardized definition.  In the recent New York Times’ opinion column Room for Debate, Vani Hari, also known as The Food Babe, wrote on the use of the word natural on food products, stating, “The word natural has become polluted.” That’s a catchy sound bite, but unfortunately, Hari and others are using the term natural inaccurately, as a proxy for quality or safety.  Their failure to use USDA-defined terms to understand food production is prompting arbitrary, unproductive discussions. Here are two things to remember when it comes to the ‘natural’ debate:

1. Natural is not a proxy for qualitynatural-food-science-based-richard-williams-fda

Definition confusion aside, many indisputably natural things are not suited for food, from poison ivy to rhododendron (not to mention some of the natural bacteria we fear most in food, like E. coli O157:H7). By the same token, many products of food science, from preservatives that keep food from spoiling to antimicrobial washes that fight foodborne illness-causing bacteria, make our food safer. Both naturally occurring and manmade substances that are approved for consumption are safe to eat. That’s why the FDA certifies ingredients based on actual safety research and not origin stories.

Robert Lustig writes that “Perhaps the most pernicious of all health claims is natural,” but the word natural, as it is currently used, is not necessarily connected to the healthfulness of food. Even regulated terms like organic are not necessarily an indicator of the healthfulness of the food, whereas a diet rich in nutrients, either organic or conventional, promotes health and reduces the risk of a variety of chronic diseases. Richard Williams, a former FDA director for social sciences, nails this takeaway in his New York Times piece, saying “most of what people want to avoid by eating natural food has no basis in science.”

2. We’ve never before had more information about our food

Thanks to the FDA and USDA, we have an enormous amount of information on what’s in our food and how it’s made. With the term natural, there will be differences across products in how the term is interpreted, so it makes significantly more sense to spend time informing consumers about our many options that are both defined and regulated. For example, organic foods by definition may not contain genetically engineered ingredients, so the organic label provides an alternative choice for those looking to avoid foods produced using biotechnology. Here are established definitions on organic and other food production-related terms.

Vani Hari wants ‘natural’ to mean ‘organic.’ Robert Lustig wants it to mean ‘limited post-harvest processing,’ presumably including processing to extend shelf-life. They’re both right about one thing: Natural is probably not the most useful term to help you determine the healthfulness of a food. Instead, look for nutrition and food safety information to see how a food fits into a balanced diet, and use the established FDA and USDA definitions to learn more about its production.

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