A Natural Process
Exploring the Relationship between Processed and Natural Foods
How do you feel about making a turkey?
I pause with my thumbs hovering over the screen of my phone. The message is directed at me in a group of friends planning a Friendsgiving meal. I have never made a turkey – or a whole bird at all, for that matter – but as the most adventurous cook of the bunch, I feel obligated to try. I reply with more confidence than I feel before locking my phone and turning to a screen more suited for research; my laptop.
A google search for small turkey near me returns five shopping results lined eagerly at the top of the page. The first is a small Butterball turkey, netted and printed with a fetching green scroll reading “All Natural**” in curved script. I zoom in to the bottom of the preview picture, where tiny print clarifies “Contains up to 8% of a solution of water, salt, spices, and natural flavor. **no artificial ingredients – minimally processed”.
It retails for $1.99 per pound. The second turkey, off-brand, makes no such claims. “Marinated with up to 8% of turkey broth, salt, sodium phosphate, sugar, and flavoring” boasts the packaging. It is sixty cents cheaper per pound than the Butterball. I would ordinarily choose this turkey on the basis of price, but I find myself hesitating. Do I want a turkey injected with sugar and vague “flavoring?” What unnatural substances will make their way into my body as a result? Natural food tastes better and is crafted with healthier ingredients. Clearly, the Butterball is the better option – and yet, I pause again once I get to Target and find that it has no ingredient label beyond “Raw Turkey as Packaged (Including Neck and Giblets)”. There is no clarification for the spices or natural flavors. It almost feels less transparent than the processed generic turkey next to it in the freezer. I wonder if I’m really making the best choice or being duped by the innocuous green scroll.
There is an association between preparing and eating something “natural” and slowing down. The word conjures images of cows happily chomping grass and farmers examining each of their tomato plants for ripe, sun-warmed fruits. It ignites a yearning for a simpler time, a connection to the earth through nourishing food with which McDonald’s and Lean Cuisines can’t compete. In some cases, this is an accurate conception. Farm-to-table restaurants, famers’ markets, and home gardens all provide the type of local, mindfully raised food people hope to be eating when they buy foods with natural labeling. In most grocery store chains, though, equating a natural label to this type of food is a misleading sentiment at best. At worst, it’s a romantic fallacy. As it turns out, natural food is not everything it claims to be – and it’s more closely linked to processed food than the consumers who seek out natural labeling would probably guess.
To understand the rise of natural food, we have to work our way backwards through culinary history. In the grand scheme of time, the reign of “natural food” – meaning unprocessed, raw, local, homemade, or a combination of any of those factors – has been short-lived. In fact, until around the 18th century, natural food Equating a natural label to this type of food is a misleading sentiment at best.was impractical, unreliable, or just plain unappetizing. Processed food has irrevocably altered our tastes and lifestyles, beginning with the practice of cooking, between 1.8 million and 400,000 years ago. “Pounding and heating food predigests it,” Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham explains in an interview with National Geographic. The calories and nutrients pre-broken down in cooked food were likely the biggest catalyst in allowing humans to evolve such large brains so quickly (Gibbons, n.d.).
Furthermore, cooking food provided access to a myriad of nutrients and preservation options previously unavailable in human diets. Potatoes, tree nuts, cassava, honey, and certain leafy greens like rhubarb are just a few foods containing toxins which, when ingested raw, are unpleasant if not fatal. When processed, these foods become rich sources for proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals like iron and magnesium. Processing meat and milk led to a more enjoyable eating experience as well as preserved foodstuffs such as jerky and cheese. As historian Rachel Laudan writes, “our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission… white bread instead of chewy wheat porridge; thick, nutritious, heady beer instead of prickly grains of barley; unctuous olive oil instead of a tiny, bitter fruit.” In short, processed food revolutionized the human diet worldwide.
Preserving food allowed for longer trips away from home, speeding up the demise of widespread nomadic culture. It also offered societies the capability to collect a surplus, and thus a sense of security that shifted focus to cultural affairs not centered around survival – that is, for the rich. For several centuries, processed food was a luxury for the elite. The image of the peasant coaxing wholesome food from the land contrasts sharply with the truth. In Europe, poor farmers, forced to pay their rent in food, were often left with the scraps deemed unfit for urban consumption. “Thin gruels and gritty flatbreads” were made from whatever was available and in season. Local food was associated with those who did not have the means to eat exotically. Even now, many of the foods we consider localized to a region of the world have more in common with what its aristocracy historically ingested than anything else (Laudan, 2001).
In the 18th century, the power balance began to shift. Romantic poets Jean Jacques Rousseau and Percy Shelley were among the first to propose that a “natural” diet was healthier for human consumption (Levinovitz, 2016). This might have remained a radical idea if not for the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent industrialization of food. In modern food production, practices such as cooking, pasteurizing, pickling, and canning have come to be viewed as natural. Today’s processed food – the food I’m focusing on now – arrives in the form of pre-made, pre-packaged products like frozen TV dinners and pre-sliced sandwich bread. Large, quickly-made quantities of this modern processed food increased accessibility and affordability. Unfortunately, it took regulatory industries long enough to catch up to the new system that, by the time they did, processed food had already received the reputation that still clings to it today; unhealthy, unsafe, unclean.
And so, natural food stepped into the spotlight, leaving me standing in Target with a small turkey in each hand, trying to decide which one reigned supreme. In the end, the price was the deciding factor – although, if I had unlimited funds, I admittedly would have gone with the “natural” option. I’m not alone; a study by Consumer Reports indicated that 73% of shoppers intentionally seek out “natural” labeling on the food products they buy (2016). However, the “natural” label is under less FDA regulation than a lot of other packaging labels. “The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives Even when we are actively trying to consume natural foods, we can still easily be duped by the regulations – or lack thereof – behind the label.regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected in that food,” reads the official website. This seems to define natural well enough, but it doesn’t touch production, hormones and antibiotics, pesticides, methods of preservation, or nutritional benefits (“Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling”, 2018). Thus, my turkey – preserved with sodium phosphate, frozen, and shipped from a mystery location in the U.S. – is legally considered just as natural as one I might get from the local farmers’ market.
Let’s dive a little deeper into what this might mean. In America, one cannot talk about meat production without discussing CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. CAFOs, also known as factory farms, involve raising large quantities of livestock in a relatively small space – which is the kindest way to describe it. Animals are kept in deplorable conditions so fraught with disease that they are frequently dosed with antibiotics, which then make their way into our food supply. A few feet away from the case of turkeys at Target is a shelf of chicken, also labeled “All-Natural.” the fine print makes sure to clarify that all-natural only means “no added ingredients. Minimally processed.” Maybe this chicken didn’t come from a CAFO, but given that 99% of the meat consumed by the American population does, it’s likely that it wasn’t raised in the happiest of conditions or the healthiest for our consumption (Reese, 2019). It’s highly likely that if you can’t find where your meat comes from, it came from a CAFO. Yet, without additives, it can still be considered all-natural. In 2019, the market for natural foods grew 5%, easily outstripping the food and beverage retail market’s 1.7% growth rate (Wiley, 2019). People clearly want natural food, but even when we are actively trying to consume natural foods, we can still easily be duped by the regulations – or lack thereof – behind the label.
After finding that natural food isn’t quite as transparent as I’d like it to be, I wondered if its health benefits were similarly overstated. To explore this, I met with Katie Crawford, a Dietetics honor student at Ball State University preparing for her graduation and next several years of school. Over coffee (hers black, mine full of sweetener), I ask her what she thinks about processed foods – meaning food sold pre-made, pre-processed, or in a state other than raw. “I think the way our society functions – you know, go, go go – makes those kinds of foods possible, but also possibly to our detriment,” she says. “The standard American diet – we call it the SAD diet, actually, because that’s what it is. Our average diet is the opposite of intentional.”
Processed food is partially to blame for this due to its accessibility and the ingredients added to it for shelf stability. High levels of sodium added to canned foods like soups, dressings, and pasta sauces – yes, even the natural ones, says Katie – are some of the main culprits. Kidney disease, hypertension, and coronary heart disease are a few of the resulting health problems she lists.
So staying away from processed food makes sense – right? Not exactly, says Katie. “It’s very difficult to get all the nutrients you need from only natural food – meaning raw or whole foods,” she warns. Potassium, fiber, vitamin D, and a variety of B vitamins are what she calls “nutrients of concern,” meaning that it’s extremely hard to eat enough of them without processed foods. A chronic imbalance in these nutrients results in oxidative stress, an imbalance between molecules that makes it significantly easier for cancers to form in the body.
Many of the nutrients of concern we consume come in the form of fortified foods like cereals, breads, and milk (both dairy and non-dairy). Fortifying, Katie explains, involves introducing or re-inserting nutrients into food during processing, such as adding B vitamins to the refined flour used in cereals. I ask if the foods would be healthier without any processing in the first place. “Not exactly. A lot of people just aren’t intentional enough to get all the nutrients they need on their own,” she points out. “If something is fortified, that’s years and lots of money in research that’s gone into fortifying that product. Take vitamin D milk – people didn’t just decide to add vitamin D to it for fun. Tons of research came before that decision.”
The bottom line when it comes to processed and natural foods, Katie says, is “balance and moderation”. Unfortunately, the price tag on truly natural food makes it difficult to access for those without the financial “…natural is really just marketing. They’re not selling oranges, they’re selling vitality.” means to pay seven times more for a dozen eggs from the farmers’ market than they would pay for the same product at Kroger. I voice this and Katie nods in agreement. When it comes to foods that aren’t fresh produce or verified local foods, she tells me, “natural is really just marketing. They’re not selling oranges, they’re selling vitality. There’s nothing natural about strawberries in January, even if they’re organic,” she adds wryly. “And people are pressured to feel like they need certain things to be healthy, which is unfortunate for the consumer who doesn’t have enough money and feels like they can’t afford health.”
The good thing is, as Katie’s insight and my research have both backed up, people don’t need to eat only raw, natural, local food to be healthy. Sometimes, food with those qualities tastes better. It’s definitely more environmentally friendly and is a great way to support small farmers and ethically run food providers. But processed food isn’t the nutritionally barren, disease-causing scourge some would paint it to be. In fact, a lot of foods marketed as “natural” are foods masquerading as more wholesome than they are to capitalize on the health food trend. Processed food will never be completely avoidable. Nor will a diet including it be completely detrimental to consumers’ quality of life. Our nutritional history has built towards the myriad of options for foodstuffs we possess today. To demonize processed food is to demonize the advancements we’ve made and the balanced diets we’re blessed enough to be able to access.
Wiley, C., & Wiley, C. (2019, September 10). Growth of Natural Food and Beverage Outpaces Overall Food and Beverage Market. Retrieved from https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2019/09/growth-of-natural-food-and-beverage-outpaces-overall-food-and-beverage-market/.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2019, October 22). Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling.
(2016, May 5). Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/media-room/press-releases/2016/05/consumer-reports-survey-show-73-percent-of-consumers-misled-by-natural-labels-at-the-grocery-store/.
Meal, T. D. (2016, November 23). 10 deadly foods you probably have in your kitchen. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/10-deadly-foods-you-probably-have-in-your-kitchen.
Gibbons, A., & Paley, M. (n.d.). The Evolution of Diet. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/.
Levinovitz, A. (2016, May 8). What Is ‘Natural’ Food? A Riddle Wrapped In Notions Of Good And Evil. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/05/08/477057872/what-is-natural-food-a-riddle-wrapped-in-notions-of-good-and-evil.
Sentience Institute. (2019, April 11). US Factory Farming Estimates. Retrieved from https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/us-factory-farming-estimates.
Laudan, R. (2001). A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food. Gastronomica, 1(1), 36–44. doi: 10.1525/gfc.2001.1.1.36