Naturally Nonsense

Brad Plumer considers the absurdity of labeling food as “all-natural”:

In a recent essay in PLOS Biology, [Cambridge geneticist Ottoline] Leyser argues that it’s time to kill this mistaken idea once and for all. Basically everything in modern agriculture is unnatural. “The cereal crops we eat bear little resemblance to their naturally selected ancestors, and the environments in which we grow them are equally highly manipulated and engineered by us,” she writes. “We have, over the last 10,000 years, bred out of our main food plants all kinds of survival strategies that natural selection put in.”

There’s more along these lines. “Agriculture is the invention of humans,” she adds. “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.”

Roberto Ferdman provides a chart on the subject:

The list of lucrative food labels is long, and, at times, upsetting.


Many of these labels are pasted onto food packages for good reason. It’s imperative, after all, that consumers with celiac disease be able to tell which food items are gluten free, or that those with milk allergies be able to tell which are made without lactose.

But some are utterly meaningless. Take food labeled with the word “natural,” for instance. Actually, remember it, because it’s probably the most egregious example on supermarket shelves today. The food industry now sells almost $41 billion worth of food each year labeled with the word “natural,” according to data from Nielsen. And the “natural” means, well, nothing. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t even have an official definition or delineation of what “natural” actually means.

Update from a reader, who passes along a classic Carlin skit on the subject:

Another reader takes issue with Ferdman’s reference to people with “milk allergies”:

Please, please don’t continue to spread the misconception that lactose intolerance has any relationship whatsoever to genuine allergy. It contributes to widespread misunderstanding of what allergies are, and, in particular, how serious genuine allergic reactions can be.

Lactose intolerance is a digestive disturbance. It is very unpleasant and uncomfortable – and definitely something to be avoided. I am afflicted myself and I know what I’m talking about here. But, accidental ingestion of lactose is not a life-threatening situation.

Genuine allergic reactions, on the other hand, can definitely be life-threatening. Every year there are reports of deaths due to genuine allergic reactions to accidental ingestion of peanuts or shellfish. Applying the term “allergy” to conditions that are nowhere near life-threatening trivializes the word and makes education of the public much more difficult.