Natural Reflections: What does the word natural really stand for?

Natural Reflections

What does the word natural really stand for on labels and in our general discourse? Is it overused and involved with greenwashing, or does it have any value at all?

By Gene Sager

Recently, I have been reflecting on the meaning and use of the word “natural,” which is ubiquitous, at least in marketing terms.

Word Abuse

My research on natural and green products includes trips to the local supermarket where I read labels and packages, taking copious notes as I stand in the aisles. Sympathetic female shoppers stop and ask if I need help. I do present a pathetic image, I suppose, as I puzzle over the promising claims on the packages. This is at once a dead serious topic (including crucial health and environmental issues) and an amusing investigation because devious or outlandish claims abound.

Most puzzling on a recent trip to the market was a cheese snack product “Made With All Natural Oil.” I read the long list of ingredients and found they include “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” – an extraordinarily unnatural oil and an ingredient many doctors tell us to avoid in any amount. I called the company’s “nutrition expert” to inquire about the discrepancy regarding the use of the word natural. The reply was quick and confident: The hydrogenated oil is in the seasoning, not in the cheese curls themselves. I objected that the seasoning and the cheese curls are one – there is no separate packet for seasoning. The seasoning is cooked in. The expert held steadfast to the cheese curls and seasoning distinction, and so ended the conversation.

A fascinating category of foods today is the energy/health bar. Filled with fruits and nuts, these are touted as “natural snacks” but any random check of the ingredients reveals that most of the fruit used is not organic. I take it for granted that non-organic fruit is not natural because most pesticides and herbicides are not natural. These poisons remain in the fruit, so we should not use the word natural in relation to these energy bars. Meanwhile, marketeers engage in tokenism, taking the lack of preservatives as sufficient to warrant the word natural on the label. What is worse, many of the fruits used in these bars are members of the notorious “dirty dozen gang” – the twelve foods that are most dangerous if not organic. For example, non-organic apples, cherries, and strawberries are health hazards.

Now, lest I be dismissed as an inveterate complainer, I assure you that some uses of this overused and abused word meet with my approval. Take, for instance, the name of a local landscape company called “Natural Landscapes.” They use only native organic plants, locally grown. In my area, this means live oak trees and buckwheat. Instead of thirsty grasses, this company uses ground covers like manzanita and sages. Native plants fit the ecosystem: the weather, the soil, the rocks, the birds, insects, and animals. In this instance, “natural” means “in harmony with Nature.”

So let’s test out the notions of “natural” and “in harmony with Nature.” As they stand, these words are far too vague. They need to be worked out in specifics – in various kinds of living conditions, products, and in the activities of daily life. We should not hesitate to criticize phony or impractical ideas of the natural life.

Natural Meat

Amid the multifarious uses of the poor word “natural,” the claims made for foods are arguably the most common and the most important. While most food ads and labels remain unregulated, the United States Department of Agriculture has established an official label to designate certain meat as natural: It must be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives, and “only minimally processed.”

Although the “minimally processed” term has no teeth since it is too vague, the prohibition of additives like artificial colors and preservatives is clear enough. What is also clear is the omission of all reference as to how the animal was raised: What was the animal fed? Were its natural instincts suppressed? Most beef cattle in North America are subjected to confinement in feedlots where they are fed grains and given antibiotics. Many will have been given growth hormones. But the antibiotics and hormones are retained in the meat that can bear the label “natural.” Ruminant animals like cattle do not naturally eat grain; it upsets their stomachs. It goes against their nature to stand in a cramped feedlot for months.

If “natural” means “in harmony with nature,” beef production raises a host of serious health and environmental issues. Are the grass and grain organic? How much water does beef production take from our supplies? How can we produce natural meat from such an unnatural process? No wonder the Union of Concerned Scientists lists the USDA label “Natural Meat” in their “Buyer Beware” category.

One lesson to be learned here is that we are still thinking of the world and our food in a bit-by-bit, piecemeal fashion. We have heard it said that all things in Nature are interrelated, but we still think of the animal feed as one thing and the beef patty as a separate item. The cheese curls are one thing and the seasoning another. The “natural spring water” is one thing and the handy plastic water bottle is another.

Urban Makeover

Issues about the term “natural” are not limited to products and services. The natural life is a way of living, a lifestyle, our daily activities. It is sometimes stereotyped as a return to a primitive life, and critics of naturalism challenge us by saying, “If you are so into living a natural life, why don’t you move to a cabin in the woods or live like the Amish?” Actually this primitive image of naturalness is quite unrealistic and would distract those in the natural living movement from their contemporary goals.

The primitive image assumes that technology is suspect, and it assumes that city life cannot be natural. These assumptions are misleading, if not flatly false. It is our nature as human beings to invent and use tools. Today, technology is a mixed bag – some useful and relatively safe, some wasteful and dangerous. Discretion is called for. Some technology can be produced so that its contribution outweighs its negative environmental impact. Computers and mass transit tech are two examples. The natural life today involves electronic networks to inform and coordinate efforts to preserve the natural environment. The new mass transit is high tech and far superior to car culture, which is an obsessive way of life based on highly inefficient gas-fired boxes mostly used by just one humanoid at a time.

Advocates of the primitive way of life, on the other hand, assume that life in the city cannot be natural. This image of the city has it filled with asphalt and cement, noisy, crowded, and polluted. Apartments, condos, and houses are crammed together with little or no green space. But this picture obscures the differences among cities and the natural possibilities within a given city. From changes in air quality to the proximity of parks and other green areas, there are urban variations, and the natural life is within the grasp of a well-informed, resourceful urbanite.

Here are a few guidelines to illustrate the range of challenges and choices we have in living naturally in the city: (1) Be wary of dwellings controlled by associations, landlords, or others who prevent you from installing solar, composting, and other “natural” activities. (2) Walking is key to the natural life. A good case scenario is a dwelling within walking distance of a park, mass transit, and a grocery store. A walk or jog in a park or other green area is exercise and a Nature exposure; domesticated Nature is Nature nonetheless. (3) Sometimes ecological links involve political links. In the city where I live, we had to go through our city council to put pressure on the city council of the neighboring city in order to rid our streams of pesticides that were leaching in from the neighboring town. But we can happily use the word natural in relation to some aspects of life in the city.

When we get beyond the separate bit-by-bit mentality, we learn to deal with multidimensional issues and with large regional issues, even global issues. And that also relates to our use of the word natural. The natural life today is natural in a new key: to act in harmony with Nature, we need to take a well-informed, consciously conservationist approach. I have emphasized the ideas of “well-informed” and “consciously.” In a sense, we have become watchdogs on guard against greedy corporations, sluggish governments, and a public manipulated by marketeers and the media. All this requires constant vigilance and effort.

Coming Home

The word natural sometimes implies “spontaneous” or “relaxed.” But if we must always be on guard against phony naturalness, it seems as if we can enjoy no relaxed respite from the hectic task of protecting the environment.

Most of us have read the results of research which shows that our mere presence in a natural setting can reduce stress and even foster recovery from illness. The positive influence is double if we attend to our surroundings and appreciate them. Unhurried, conscious experience of Nature can bring relief from stressful dealings with people. Nature fascinates, soothes, and calms us. This is true even though Nature has the potential to disturb or destroy our lives as in a violent storm or earthquake. So Nature is not so much beneficent as awesome and mysterious. It supports our lives and we feel a deep affinity with it.

The occasional outing to National Parks and places with amazing panoramic views is not the only sort of natural setting experience. Many cities have green areas including residential streets that invite an experience of Nature, albeit domesticated Nature. But the most influential Nature experience may well be our own homes. Pots and plant boxes can grow flowers and vegetables. And don’t hire out the yard work – not even to the Natural Landscapes company mentioned above. Landscape experts may be consulted, but we should do the work ourselves. One of the urban tragedies I witness on my daily walks is the hired gardener who comes to work tending the plants while the resident fires up her SUV and drives off to the fitness center for exercise!

Experience in Nature begins at home, and, in a deeper sense, Nature is our home. Communion with Mother Nature is a spiritual experience in which we become aware of our deep roots, our connectedness with all things. Thus the natural life attains a balance between the challenges of environmental vigilance on the one hand and communion with Nature on the other. A veteran greenie once told me, “You can’t say you really love your mother unless you visit her every day.”

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.

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