Words by Ana Kinsella.
From microwaveable meals to makeup, skin creams to sink cleaner, “laboratory formulated” products used to fly off the shelves. Now, Mother Nature sells more than science; consumers want everything raw, clean and organic. What prompted the shift and what, if anything, do we risk losing when “natural” becomes a synonym for “good”? Ana Kinsella investigates.
Humans have a funny way of imposing a moral code on just about anything. Imagine, for a moment, explaining to an extraterrestrial that one plate of food (an organic green salad) is apparently virtuous and wholesome, while another plate (a pile of golden, salty fries) is more delicious, but bears a kind of guilt. Both foods provide sustenance. Surely, the extraterrestrial might suggest, that should be enough for us humans. Guilt or virtue, you would then need to explain, are social constructs that we have become quite attached to.
There’s a kind of virtue ascribed to choosing “natural.” Organic foods, we believe, are better than processed ones. Following a paleo diet indicates that you care about your health and your body and are willing to do what it takes to cherish it—just like our cave-dwelling ancestors. Experiencing natural childbirth is a badge of honor among many mothers, as though requiring medical intervention is cheating. Lately, the extreme of this idea has emerged in anti-vaccine sentiment, where parents risk the lives of their children—and others—by refusing vaccinations, often on the grounds that inoculations themselves are unnatural in some way.
The conflict between science and the appeal of the “natural” is centuries old. Natural, a new book by Alan Levinovitz, professor of religion at James Madison University, puts forward the idea that religion underpins the notion that natural is best. Levinovitz believes that “natural” is a secular synonym for “holy.” What is unnatural can only be the work of man. He cites, for example, the suspicious reaction to the Impossible Burger, the meat-like plant-based burger launched in 2016.1 That same year, the US Food and Drug Administration invited comments from consumers on the meaning of “natural food.” Many mentioned theology as a basis for choosing meat. “Natural,” reads one, “should be limited to those ingredients that have been created by God.”
Religious or otherwise, food is often the site of much cultural and emotional anxiety. “You’re being good,” one colleague might say to another who has passed over the appealing supermarket meal deal for a brown-bag lunch. But a homemade meal in and of itself doesn’t have an inherent moral superiority. The moral dimension of the natural is something that we superimpose on it.
Today, “natural” is a marketing term, and one that is muddy at best. Data cited in Levinovitz’s Natural claims that more than half of Americans say they prefer “all natural” foods. Food historian and author Annie Gray points out the danger in the word’s instability. “The term is never well-defined,” she tells me. “And that, of course, is very useful in the cynical world of marketing.” But what is it that consumers are looking for when they seek out natural food?
In recent years, the turn to the natural has been accelerated by instances in which the alternative has proved itself to be less appealing. Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book, Eating Animals, investigated the reality of industrialized farming, while the UK and Ireland’s horsemeat scandal in 2013 revealed the dangerous lack of transparency in the food chain. But there’s a risk, Gray says, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we prize all things natural in our food choices. “The food chain is highly complex. Do all consumers understand the regulations around organic, and that it is an entirely constructed definition? I doubt it.”
That complexity doesn’t prevent the interweaving of natural lifestyle choices and the moral high ground, though. For modern consumers, choosing supposedly natural goods over processed options signals something. I’m using coconut oil instead of chemicals to remove my makeup, the fresh-faced celebrity might tell us in a magazine interview. In doing so, she rises above the rest of us—the poor, ignorant and lazy who pour hazardous chemicals directly on our skin. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a commercial empire built on the perception of natural consumer choices as a kind of luxury reserved for the beautiful and well-off.2 Levinovitz notes that the shift from “natural” to “morally superior” is a slippery slope, and one that brings class and privilege into its remit. “It’s no coincidence that natural foods and products are very expensive, and ‘natural’ child-rearing requires time that many people just don’t have,” he explains. “This turns ‘naturalness’ into a form of classism, where the impure, unnatural lower classes cannot compete in spiritual cleanliness with the upper classes. There’s nothing wrong with valuing natural products because you like them, but don’t confuse ‘natural’ with ‘better’ or ‘holy.’”
There are obvious benefits that come with investigating our health and agricultural practices. The rhetoric around natural beauty has helped dangerous activities like the use of sunbeds fall out of favor among the young, for example. And heightened scrutiny of the chemicals in our cosmetics and food is a good thing. But we may also risk losing something when we automatically favor that which seems to be natural.
“There’s nothing wrong with valuing
natural products because you like them, but don’t
confuse ‘natural’ with ‘better’ or ‘holy.’”
In agriculture, science has made farms more efficient, and technological advances in recent years have helped farmers to work with the environment to have less of an impact. Organic farming, Gray says, is never going to feed the world on its own. “Farmers markets are delightful, but they cost more. We need an informed discussion around food and foodways which is not largely held around the kitchen islands of the well-off, I’m afraid. And we should certainly not be equating ‘science’ with ‘bad’… or even ‘processed’ with ‘bad’—there are a lot of degrees of processing, and it’s possible to buy natural vegan food which is so highly processed that I, at least, would balk at buying it.”
Levinovitz says that when he first approached the topic of nature, he thought that it, too, was a social construct. “But there must be an important difference between Yellowstone National Park and New York City,” he observes. “If there’s no such thing as nature, then what exactly are we trying to conserve? If wilderness is a construct, why not install rides in national parks?” The fuzzy point at which our moral values intersect with our concept of nature is where the problem arises. “But the truth is that it doesn’t matter whether something is unnatural or not.” What matters, he continues, is “whether it causes joy or brings suffering.”
Science, after all, has managed to alleviate so much suffering. Antibiotics, by any standard, could be considered unnatural, but they enable us to live longer and healthier lives. And when the world is facing a crisis, it is to science that we look for a route to safety. Nature doesn’t have to be at odds with that; it’s possible, in fact, for science and nature to work together as two distinct forces. There’s an opportunity to prove this right in front of us: Climate breakdown poses an existential threat to life on Earth as we know it. If there is a workable and just solution, it’ll be developed in laboratories as much as in the natural environment. “In the future, the solutions to our problems will be a diverse combination of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ approaches,” Levinovitz concludes. “That’s not something to feel guilty or conflicted about.”