Not only are hurricanes, disease and mosquitoes natural, the way the word is defined by regulators can render it practically meaningless
Tuesday 8 March 2016
I’ve repeatedly come across the idea that natural means good among eco-friendly folks like myself. It has emerged in online forums, conversations with friends, and discussions at health food stores. It has also popped up regularly in the comments section of this column, where astute readers can often be found cautioning against making this assumption.
I happen to agree with them: the assumption that natural equals good is wrong. But it’s understandable that people would feel that way, isn’t it? Natural just sounds good; easy. Natural sounds like puppies and sunshine and fresh air. Natural! The way nature intended! Before meddlesome mankind stuck our big noses in and ruined everything, that is.
The problem is twofold. First: “natural” doesn’t mean good – not entirely and not always. Second: “natural” sometimes doesn’t mean anything at all, at least not in the way it’s most commonly used – to imbue a product with a vaguely positive attribute in the hopes that consumers will buy it.
Beginning with the first point, as we learned from vaginal detox pearls, natural does not necessarily equate to beneficial, effective or even safe. In fact, here are some natural things which are also actually quite terrible: death, disease, beets, cute little zebra babies being eaten by lions, poisonous plants, mosquitoes, hurricanes.
All of these things fit the dictionary definition of the word natural (“existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”) yet none of them are really all that appealing as they relate to humankind. Beets stain everything and taste like dirt; sunburns ruin vacations; the seeds of the castor oil plant have the distinction of being the Guinness Book of World Records holder for world’s most poisonous plant, yet its charming purple flowers litter gardens around the world.
It is therefore not enough to see “natural” and read “good for me” in its place. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of natural treatments and beauty remedies and homemade cleaning products, but in order for them to be useful, they have to do more than simply have “natural” as their main attribute. There’s no sense in having a natural cleaner that doesn’t clean, or a natural remedy that only makes you sicker. In these cases, natural isn’t doing you any favours.
The reverse isn’t necessarily true either. I’m reminded of this daily: without the dose of 11 decidedly unnatural pills I take twice a day, my chronic kidney condition would make it impossible for me to write this column. My daughter was born when surgeons strapped me to a table, cut an incision into my lower abdomen and then reached in and pulled her out – it really doesn’t get much more unnatural than that. But if it had been left up to nature, my full placenta previa would have meant that one of us would have died during labour.
So, on to point two. In the US, at the time of this writing, the US Department of Agriculture does not restrict the use of the word “natural” to describe food or beverage products unless there are added colours, synthetic substances, or flavours.