Here a “Natural” Food there a “Natural”Food…Have you had any “Natural” Food Lately?

Terry D. Etherton

Is your preference to shop for and purchase “natural” foods?  Based on some of my observations in a few trips recently to the West Coast and Texas, there are some segments of the restaurant and grocery store industries where the usage of this phrase has gotten completely out-of-hand.  Every time I hear “natural foods”, I always wonder what isn’t “natural”?  Of course, that isn’t the point of marketing, which should be to communicate succinctly…no, in the food industry one seems to need phrases that are poetic and differentiate some foods as a whole lot better, safer and healthier even when they are not!

This marketing “smoke and mirrors” creates a lot of unnecessary confusion among consumers by championing the belief that the organic/natural food system is the best way forward for feeding the world in the future.  As I have written in The Locavore’s Plight, this approach is simply not doable and denies the virtues of one of the great creations in society…the contemporary world food system.

The sound bites to describe foods as “better” than your standard food has become remarkably sophisticated.  At one restaurant in San Francisco, their website touted that their establishment served “natural, urban rustic food”.  I sort of like the phrase “urban rustic food” even though I have no idea what it means…but it sounds good!

I am guessing that urban rustic food is viewed by some as a notch better that the more “pedestrian food” (inject humor here) that is described as organic, grass-fed, free-range, local or hook and line caught (net-free caught fish seems better)!

The use of the English language to entertain and mislead folks at the grocery store or local bistro is evolving.  In San Francisco, one restaurant sources food from organic producers whose livelihood is based on a respect for nature and a sense of place.  Most folks I know respect nature, even the vast majority of farmers in the business of contemporary food production.  The “sense of place” while a pretty word phrase, still makes no sense to me… but I am guessing someone with an MFA degree (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing came up with this phrase.

Another vendor to a very “hip” restaurant in San Francisco (I didn’t go, just looked at their website) conveyed that their vendors were committed to promoting and supporting a sustainable, organic county – a county in which growers and the people who rely on them recognize their mutual interdependence (I will leave the name of the county out of the blog to minimize the fan mail I get…but it is just north of San Francisco).  The phrase “mutual interdependence” is a “good one” in that it sounds “cool” but conveys little.

The last descriptor that I found that I “liked” was:  “we serve pastured meat, poultry and eggs from small farmers..these are the flavors of place”.  I was confused by the usage of pastured.  I thought animals could be kept on pasture, but was surprised to learn that there must be some way to keep meat and eggs in the pasture.  The “flavors of place” is a phrase I just give up on.  I have no idea what it means.  However, if any of you have had any medium-rare “place”, please let me know.  The word “place” must be important because it used a lot.

If you are wondering what the point of this blog is, it is to make light of the verbiage that is being used to differentiate food production practices.  As I have written before, these are production practices that differ; however, they don’t have much impact on nutrient content, healthiness or safety.

The use of the word “natural” is a good example of the “word spin” that occurs in the marketplace to make one think a particular food production practice is better than another.  The phrase “natural foods” is a widely used terms in food labeling and marketing, and, as I have discussed is remarkably vague.  There are no USDA standards that “define” natural.  And, I can’t fathom this ever being done.

Consumers in developed countries are lucky.  We have plenty of affordable food.  Most consumers in these countries never consider the complexity of the system that produces and delivers the food to their grocery store or restaurant.  We should be celebrating the robustness of this and not engaging in practices that inaccurately and unfairly differentiate foods when there is no difference.

Go ahead and eat pastured meat and eggs and natural, rustic, urban food which gives you a feeling of mutual interdependence and a flavor of place if you find value in that; don’t disparage those who choose to eat healthy food that tastes delicious and is delivered in a more traditional, economical way.



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