Science Mom: ‘Natural’ Is Not A Synonym For ‘Better’
Have you ever said or heard a word so often it starts to not sound like a word at all? That’s how I feel when I hear people use the word ‘natural’, especially when they use it as if it’s some sort of magical trump card to overrule any other considerations or objections. So many people treat the word ‘natural’ like a synonym for ‘better’, or worse yet, ‘flawless’, but the truth is, our careless, over-liberal use of the word has done such a number on it that it really means nothing anymore.
If we flip to the N-pages in our trusty Merriam-Webster, we get the following definition of the word:
adjective ˈna-chə-rəl, ˈnach-rəl: existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
There’s a lot of nasty stuff existing in or caused by nature. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Ebola. Black widow spiders. Arsenic. Kirk Cameron. I can also think of a lot of pretty awesome things made or caused by humankind. Antibiotics. Indoor plumbing. Flannel pajamas. Nutella. While the word ‘natural’ is used all the time as an expression of value, it’s an empty one. Cyanide is naturally made in apple seeds and stone fruits, but no one would argue that because it’s natural, that’s the good stuff. If we make antibiotics in a pharmaceutical vat, do they somehow lose their value compared to the kind made ‘naturally’ by fungus, even if we’re getting the same molecule in the end? Let me show you two sugar molecules, one made chemically and one made in an ear of corn, and you can tell me which one is the ‘good’ version. What kind of chemical bond is intrinsic moral value stored in, anyway?
It’s not just in the realm of semantics that the word ‘natural’ has about as much use as a chocolate teapot, though. Have you ever chosen a particular brand of food, a cleaning product, or some cosmetics over the competition because the word natural appeared on the packaging? Bad news: in the United States, there is only one rule when it comes to the use of the word ‘natural’ on your favorite grocery store products. That rule? Natural meat and eggs have to be ‘minimally processed’. What counts as minimal processing? Good question. I would guess whatever is cheap and fast enough to result in a price tag that natural-happy consumers are willing to pay. Technically, added sugar is an all-natural sweetener. Natural additives could also include corn starch, hydrolyzed proteins, or eau de beaver asshole. (I really wish that one was a joke, but it’s not.)
If the natural nudniks were content to pay twice as much for a loaf of bread with the word ‘natural’ on the bag, that would be annoying enough. But of course, the word’s reach hasn’t been limited to a couple of overpriced grocery store aisles.