natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:

Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 

Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 and since that time it’s become a classic example of muckraking (journalism that exposes corruption). It also is possibly the first book to address industrial agriculture – and what happens when Big Food interests run amok.

I wanted to read The Jungle because it’s a classic piece of the American literary canon, and also because I was interested in early food journalism. I didn’t realize that it also qualified as creative non-fiction, being centered around a fictional Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus who moves with his family to Chicago, following the promise of a better life. There, he gets a job in “Packingtown” at one of the meatpacking houses. And basically? It all goes to hell from there.

The horrid conditions (and I mean horrid) that Sinclair describes through Jurgis and his family caused public outcry. Sinclair himself worked undercover in the meatpacking plants for weeks, doing research. The book was originally published as a serial in a socialist newspaper (Sinclair was an active socialist), and he eventually paid to publish the first edition of the book on his own. Ironically, his goal was to further his political agenda – to expose the plight of the working man. But what the public cared about was the impact the book had on how they saw their food.

Though the government denounced his book because of his socialist agenda, President (Teddy) Roosevelt commissioned a report that confirmed Sinclair’s claims. Public outcry eventually led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act (required mandatory inspections of livestock, postmortem inspections of carcasses, sanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and housing plants, and USDA monitoring of facilities) as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established what would later be called the FDA, and carried penalties for mislabeling and adulteration of products, which at the time was rampant – and frankly, foul.

For all of the issues that I have with modern industrial agriculture and confined animal feeding operations, this book put into perspective how much worse it actually was 100 years ago. While there are still additives in processed food that I don’t want to eat, it is because of modern food production that we can buy milk that isn’t 50% chalk, and if we buy a carton of rancid yogurt at the store, we can return it for a full refund. While people still do die of food poisoning, and I’m not making light of that, the mortality rate from adulterated food is drastically lower today than it was 100 years ago, thanks in part to the legislation passed after The Jungle was published. We can definitely thank Sinclair and the other muckraking journalists at the time for that.

It’s worth noting that Sinclair was disappointed that people cared more about the food they were eating than the plight of the working man, but that is sadly an issue that hasn’t gotten much better today. It’s important that we eat pesticide free, organic produce not just because of the danger of pesticides to our own health, but because the exposure to farm workers is orders of magnitude worse.

I wonder what Sinclair would say if he could see what his book began – and how far we still have to go.

reading this week

CNN tells the story of Monsanto (Inspired Bites on
2 million people across the world took part in the March Against Monsanto recently, and one of the only media outlets that covered it was CNN. Robyn O’Brien highlights their coverage in this blog entry and also links to this video, which does a great job of simplifying the issues that have been raised about Monsanto and GMOs. Definitely worth the 7 minutes to watch. (Even just to watch Michael Moss and his fierce eyebrows talk at the end.)

Speaking of Monsanto…

GMO Wheat Found in Oregon Field (NPR)
GMO wheat is not authorized for commercial planting, but an Oregon farmer found it on his land. Wheat is a huge export crop for U.S. farmers, which is why GMO wheat is not authorized to be planted. Other countries, particularly in Europe and Asia, won’t buy GMO products. More tests are being done to determine how the wheat got there and the extent of its presence, but it goes to show how easily these GMOs can sneak into our food supply.

Candy Won’t Make You Fat, Says Study Funded by Big Candy (PopSci)
This article showed up a lot on the Internet a week or two ago and was laughable. The National Confectioners Association funded a study that concluded that candy was not associated with any health risks. Wow! What strikes me, though, is that people are quick to laugh when a candy company funds research that promotes candy as part of a healthy diet, but we listen to soft drink manufacturers and other Big Food/Big Ag companies tell us the same things, with research funded by their own interest groups. When you see a new research study released that touts the health benefits of a food, look closely to see who sponsored the research  An independent or government group? Or industry? 

Too Many Repeat Violators in Hog Slaughter, Inspector General Report Says (Food Safety News)
This statistic is shocking, but not surprising: “The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service issued 44,128 noncompliance records (NRs), but only 28 of the nation’s 616 swine plants ever faced suspension.” Even those don’t stay suspended for long, and many are repeat offenders. Read the list of offenses and I doubt you’ll be drooling for conventionally raised pork anytime soon. This is why we NEED to fight Ag-Gag laws – our government “inspections” are meaningless.

4 Questions You Should Never Ask at a Farmers Market (Smith Meadows)
I am proud that I’ve never asked these questions at a farmers market, though this article sheds some light on what it’s really like for farmers to participate in these markets.

Scotts Miracle-Gro  – the bird killing company? (Guardian via @unhealthytruth) 
Scotts Miracle-Gro knowingly sold bird seed with unregulated and illegal pesticides for two years. These pesticides are poisonous to birds, but were added to control insects eating the seed in warehouses. Reason #562894 that I won’t buy anything from Scotts – not even their organic products.

I don’t need a food savior, thanks very much

I’ve been reading the advance reviews that have come out about Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, as I wait for my copy to show up at my door. I was curious to read a review that Pollan himself tweeted out on Tuesday, done by The Center for Consumer Freedom. Judging from a cursory glance through their website, they seem more like the Center to Advance the Interests of Industrial Agriculture, so I’m not surprised they are not fans of the work of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like. (I think I qualify as one of their “food radicals” though. You know, because I don’t like pesticides in my produce and antibiotics in my meat.)
I haven’t read the book yet (though I am hoping to start it this week). But I was struck by a few of the arguments (read: utter nonsense) that this group was making which are not dependent on me having read the book for analysis. Here are a few of their statements, and my take on them.

Like his previous efforts, the book calls hard-working Americans to more hard work in the kitchen, because Pollan believes that slaving over a cutting board is better for our souls or our health than allowing industry to help ease the load.


I would consider myself a hard-working American. I work 45 hours a week in corporate America and commute for an additional 12 or so. And I do think that it’s true that cooking and food preparation can sometimes be hard work. (A 12-hour day of tomato canning can be brutal on your feet, no doubt.) But I have yet to recall the last time I slaved over a cutting board. Unless you work in a kitchen for a living, I doubt that most Americans who cook would consider themselves to be slaving over their cutting boards. Cooking is time intensive, which I’ll discuss in a bit, but is it work that the average hard-working American can manage? Most assuredly, yes.
I haven’t read Pollan’s supposed argument for cooking being good for the soul yet, so I can’t say how much I agree or disagree. But I can tell you that I’ve never heard anyone claim that eating a bag of Doritos or heating up a frozen Lean Cuisine was good for their soul. (On the contrary, 10 years ago in my diet food days, frozen diet lasagna was pretty much the antithesis of being good for my soul.)

Pollan’s “solution” to the non-problem of people occasionally eating out is raising taxes on restaurant food, since in the Church of Foodieism not cooking is a sin.


Pollan was just interviewed in New York Magazine and mentions in the interview that he eats out several times a week. So I’m not sure where the idea of Pollan vilifying people for eating out comes from. Eating out can be a great joy. Our family loves to eat out when we can, particularly at local, non-chain restaurants that support our community’s economy and agriculture. But there’s a difference between eating out as a special meal to be enjoyed and eating all of your meals outside the home and on the go.
I’d venture to guess that what Pollan would say was not such a great thing is the eating-out habit of one of my regular customers when I worked at McDonalds in college – the one who complained that her son already had 4 of the same Happy Meal toy. (As the toys were cycled out on a weekly basis, that’s a few too many Happy Meals for your kid in a 7-day span, lady.) I don’t think the Center for Consumer Freedom is leaving any room for common sense here.

There’s nothing wrong with home cooking and quite a lot to be said for it, but ultimately it takes time and effort that some people simply don’t have or would rather spend on other things. Punishing restaurant eating would unfairly target low-income people who work physically demanding jobs over long hours.


The authors of this review argue that some people would like to spend their time on other things besides cooking. I understand that. I have a lot of friends who don’t share my love of cooking and think of it more as a chore than a joy. Those friends are also by and large clean eaters. They don’t resort to processed garbage foods, but they do have simplified diets. You can still eat healthy food in your home if you don’t like to cook. Also, cooking doesn’t have to be a grand production. And you don’t have to do it every single day. (Hello, Crock Pot. Nice to meet you.)
I have personally known people who truly work 80 hours per week to support their families and are juggling keeping a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies. These are the people who can truly say that they don’t have the time for cooking meals at home. But the majority of people who say they “don’t have time” to cook have a lot of other things going on in their lives that they could live without. You don’t have time to spend 25 minutes cooking a meal, but you have time to keep up with six TV shows per week? Or 3 hours a week to spend at the golf course? Don’t even get me started on how much time people waste on Facebook. The average “hard-working” American’s TV consumption alone makes this “people are just too busy” argument a complete fraud. We are too busy for the things we don’t prioritize.
I’ve been guilty myself of falling into the “I’m too busy” trap. But when I look back at my week, how did I spend my time? In five years, it won’t matter if I missed an episode of my favorite TV show to cook dinner. But the healthy lifestyle I prioritize now will pay off over five years. Less illness, better physical fitness, and let’s face it – a healthier family.
A close cousin of the “I’m too busy” trap is the “It’s too expensive” trap. It’s obvious that healthy food costs more in our society than unhealthy food. But Americans who do not go to bed hungry at night in general already eat too much food. And those who say they can’t afford organic produce or to buy from a farmer’s market? I’d be willing to bet at least a fair share have smart phones, data plans, cable or satellite TV service, laptops, SUVs or time shares. We pay for what we prioritize.
The authors cite low-income workers as being unfairly targeted, but the answer to low-income individuals getting healthy food is not processed corn by-products in shiny packages. It’s better wages and food prices that reflect the actual cost of production. In this country we think we’re lucky if we can get health benefits for our family for under $500 a month, but we balk at paying $1 extra per pound for produce that wasn’t sprayed with carcinogens. (Not to mention the fact that the worker who got sprayed with the same carcinogen probably has no health insurance, but that’s another essay entirely.)
I also felt like the tone of this essay was incredibly patronizing. As if they were trying to hold my hand and tell me that the quality of my life would be so much better if I’d just entrust my food to the industry’s hands – that they could lift a burden I begrudgingly carry around. Be my food savior, if you will.
I would say that anyone who has eaten a meal at the Next Gen House knows that we have no use for a food savior. We consider the time and effort we put into food preparation and cultivation in our house to be worth the other things we sacrifice. We don’t have cable, but we subscribe to a CSA. We can’t do everything we want to do in life, and that’s okay. We chose to spend last Saturday canning jelly instead of doing any number of things you could do with a free, beautiful weather Saturday. But cooking for our family and for others when they are guests in our home or need a meal is a priority, no matter how much time and effort it takes. If that makes me a food radical, get me a bumper sticker.