Nature is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness, from elements of nature worship in religions around the world, to wholly unnatural creations such as Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, to the solace found in nature by many writers. It is a fundamental part of society and people care for it very deeply, so it’s unsurprising that they use the concept of naturalness to decide what they should eat. But when someone decides to buy what they believe is more natural, is this useful to them?

The Dictionary of Human Geography defines nature as:

  • The essence or defining property of something,
  • A material realm untouched by human activity
  • The entire living world, of which the human species is part

Clearly, we already have a broad and conflicted definition of nature before we even start looking at how ordinary people see it. Importantly naturalness is emotional, people feel rather than deduce naturalness. Natural food is associated with less human interference, processing, artificial ingredients and additives. Natural farming is seen as respecting the independence of non-human life. Factories and laboratories are unnatural and their involvement ‘spoils’ the inherent naturalness of a product. A lot of value is attached to natural food, it’s believed to:

  • Be better for the environment, health and animal welfare;
  • Be of an inherently higher standard than industrial food
  • Have supernatural properties which are passed onto the consumer by eating them.

Counterintuitively, human contact (rather than machines) during production makes something seem more natural and therefore ‘better’. This paints a vague and subjective picture of nature and the competing concepts within it, creating arbitrary boundaries. For instance, salt (objectively an additive) has special legal status as non-additive for no obvious reason other than common use. Perceptions of naturalness are so strongly tied to emotion that it’s too vague to be useful in day to day decisions.

Perhaps we have such confused views of naturalness because there is very little left that is truly natural. The world is now in the ‘Anthropocene’. Biodiversity is plummeting; millions of years’ of stored carbon has been thrown back into the atmosphere and nitrogen being put into the ground has more than doubled. Chemical changes in the air, oceans and soil force living things to grow differently, if they can adapt successfully at all. If the environment food is produced in isn’t natural, can the product itself be natural at all? Furthermore, almost every species we use for food has never existed in the wild. Cows and chickens have changed drastically since we started using them as food. As for crops, selective breeding has twisted them into entirely different plants. Does the key naturalness of our food still exist?

Naturalness is a blunt tool for a complicated subject. For example, pursuing naturalness often means avoiding genetically modified (GM) foods. However, they have the potential to be more reliable, provide healthier food for more people, with less environmental impact and even fight disease. There are concerns around GM foods and we shouldn’t accept them blindly, but to reject them just because they’re unnatural puts the brakes on potentially massive advances for agriculture. GM is another case of arbitrary boundaries, many people reject GM food as unnatural but have no issues with selective breeding, which has had a huge and unnatural effect on livestock and crops.

Processing and additives are almost synonymous with unhealthy food, but this shouldn’t always be the case. Many people overestimate the risk of synthetic additives but underestimate the risk of contaminants in ‘natural’ foods. Additives such as folic acid prevent malnutrition. Preservatives make food last longer, reducing food waste. Processed food is cheaper, so fewer people go hungry. Some medical conditions such as coeliac require processed food. There are concerns about processed food and additives. Modern diets have far too much salt, causing cardiovascular diseases (although it’s treated as non-additive). We shouldn’t write off all processing and additives as unnatural, we should look in more detail at individual uses.

Businesses often market food as ‘natural’, particularly because this reassures customers regarding animal welfare. They convince consumers that their animals are ‘reared in nature’ when their animals never go outside and live in cramped unsanitary conditions. Advertisers use tactics such as upselling slight improvements on minimal standards of welfare and showing animals in open fields without explicitly saying this is the habitat of their livestock. Even simple changes to packaging: noisiness, roughness to the touch and different names for the same ingredients have a big impact on how natural products appear.

Should we be impressed that McDonald’s cows aren’t purple monstrosities? Source: Adsoftheworld, Youtube

Consumers aren’t always blameless. ‘Willed-blindness’ is when people accept the illusion and continue buying products that conflict with their values. There is strong evidence that when a person feels that a brand is more natural they’re more likely to trust that brand, meaning they will be less likely to question its authenticity. Regulators are unlikely to challenge naturalness. In Denmark it was decided that it’s reasonable to make any claim of naturalness about dairy products simply because milk is ‘a natural product stemming from the mammary glands of mammals’. Additionally, the EU has no legal definitions for natural preservatives, antioxidants, colours or sweeteners. These gaps give advertisers tremendous freedom to misrepresent products. Perceptions of naturalness are easily manipulated, companies use this to their advantage and there is little legislation to stop them.

The whole idea of naturalness is broad, vague and conflicted. Nature is no longer natural. By combining issues, it becomes harder to make informed choices. Emotional ties to nature make us easy to manipulate. Vague definitions lead to poor legislation, so misleading consumers on the ‘naturalness’ of products rarely has repercussions. The values that lead us to seek naturalness are justified in their own right, however naturalness as a proxy for these values is not a useful way to guide our choices.