Eating more skeptically
By Dustin White
Strolling down through a grocery store can be quite an undertaking today. With more people wanting to eat healthy, a simple trip to the store can end up becoming a headache. As food companies try to keep up with the demand, shelves are being stocked with a new variety of foods.
One particular type of food that is appearing more often is the “natural” or “all-natural” sort. For most consumers, this would appear to be a healthy alternative. It would make sense that natural, as compared to unnatural, food would be better for a person’s health.
The situation isn’t quite that simple though. In this weeks Skeptics Corner, we will delve into a few of the problems with the idea of natural foods, and the so-called health benefits.
Modern agriculture isn’t natural
Over the last 10,000 years, with the advent of agriculture, people have been modifying the crops that they grow. Through steady modification, to both the actual crop, as well as the environment that it is grown in, the food grown today bares little resemblance to the “natural” state it once occupied.
Part of this is due to the nature of agriculture. The task of growing one’s food was based upon the idea of manipulating the environment.
”Agriculture is the invention of humans,” Ottoline Leyser, Cambridge geneticist, said. “It is the deliberate manipulation of plants (and animals) and the environment in which they grow to provide food for us. The imperative is not that we should stop interfering with nature, but that we should interfere in the best way possible to provide a reliable, sustainable, equitable supply of nutritious food.”
The banana is a great example of this type of manipulation. When a person mentions a banana, the image that generally comes to mind is a slender, yellow skinned fruit, with a white flesh. However, modern bananas are a result of years of cultivation and manipulation in order to produce a fruit that hardly bares resemblance to it’s wild ancestor.
Banana’s, in their “natural” form, appear closer to a dried cacao-pod. They are filled with inedible seeds, and hard flesh. While today’s modern bananas are sterile, the wild variety have the botanical equivalent of sexes, and are pollinated through the standard means. In many ways, one could argue that today’s banana’s aren’t quite as natural as one would think.
What is natural
The problem here then lies in the definition of natural. While one could argue both ways in regards to a banana, depending on how an individual defines the term, the line between natural and unnatural appears nearly nonexistent.
One would think that when it comes to food regulation though, there would be some way to define, and thus label, what natural actually is. Yet, the Food and Drug Administration has no official definition.
At one time, in 1991, the FDA had tried to come up with a standard. However, a couple of years later, they ended their attempt, stating that it was too complex.
With the definition virtually nonexistent, all sorts of food are then labeled as being natural, even though many would consider some of their ingredients being less than healthy. For instance, in one popular fruit drink, that has been labeled “all-natural” contained both added citric acid (which is one of the ingredients that that the FDA has deemed to not be natural) and high-fructose corn syrup, which is obviously a processed ingredient.
In regards to fresh meat, things are a bit different though. The Department of Agriculture, which regulates fresh meat, has defined natural as meat that contains no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed.
Yet, the situation isn’t quite as neat as that. While artificial ingredients would ideally lead to a rendering that the food was not natural, there are exceptions to the definition. For instance, a few artificial additives are allowed, such as chicken flavored with salt broth. At the same time, animals that are raised on antibiotics or hormones can still have their mean labeled as natural.
While the natural food label appears to be basically meaningless, certainly once can find some reassurance in the organic label.
While the organic label actually is defined much better by the FDA, it does not necessarily mean that the food is any healthier. Scientists have been comparing the organic food to nonorganic for nearly 50 years, and have yet come up with evidence that organic food is any healthier.
The lack of evidence for the superior health benefits of organic foods has led a number of researchers to criticize the organic food market.
“Any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money,” Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, said.
There is a positive side to this research though. While organic foods may not necessarily be healthier than their nonorganic counterparts, it does mean that consumers are still getting just as much nutrients from “regular” produce.
“This is great news for consumers. It proves that the 98% of food we consume, which is produced by technologically advanced agriculture, is equally nutritious to the less than 2% derived from what is commonly referred to as the ‘organic’ market,” Fredhelm Schmider, the Director General of the European Crop Protection Association, said.
Even if organic foods aren’t necessarily more healthy, many would claim that they are safer because they lack the use of pesticides. However, that is not quite true.
There are regulations in regards to the use of pesticides on organic foods, but that does not mean that pesticides are not allowed. Instead, while synthetic pesticides are forbidden, supposed natural pesticides can be used, and there are 20 such chemicals approved under the U.S. Organic Standards.
The problem again comes with the term natural. For many, it may signify that being natural is good, that is not the case here.
According to the National enter for Food and Agricultural Policy, the top two organic fungicides (copper and sulfur), had to be used at a rate twice as high as synthetic fungicides. As organic pesticides are not as effective, more are required to have the same effect.
The end effect on the environment often is much harsher as well, as more chemicals are being used. Even though organic pesticides are harvested from natural sources, one must also remember that nature also produced a variety of toxins and poisons, which can be quite dangerous.
In a recent study, nearly half of all the pesticides which are currently approved in Europe for organic farms failed the European Union’s safety evaluation.
And it isn’t just these organic pesticides that one finds on organic foods. According to Consumer Reports, 25% of the organically-labeled foods had traces of synthetic pesticides. So the organic label does not necessarily mean that the food is produced to 100% of the standard.
Eating healthy can be increasingly difficult then. While healthy labels continue to crop up, there is no guarantee that those labels really mean much. That is not to say that one should just abandon any hope of eating quality food, or that organic or “natural” food should be avoided.
Instead, it means that one must be more careful in regards which foods they choose. Maintaining a skeptic outlook to various food claims can be quite helpful, and also save on the wallet a bit.