You start with a simple plant. That’s natural. From there, it goes through various degrees of processing and possibly manipulation. Can it still be considered food from nature? Does this food exist, or are we fooling ourselves into thinking that? When does food stop being natural, and when does science take over?
Why Natural is Not Really Natural
The only natural foods that can last forever are honey and white rice. Even brown rice will turn rancid after several months due to its high oil content. In nature, most foods are susceptible to damage from weeds, rodents, insects, and germs. Leave the fruit on a tree long enough, and it will overripen and become inedible. Enter science.
The world’s population is steadily increasing, and the capacity of Earth to renew its resources is continuously declining. The quality and quantity of natural resources are at risk due to overexploitation, intensive farming, and land fragmentation. If we continue on this path, our ecosystem may become unsuitable for the human species to survive. Referred to as the Earth Overshoot Day, humanity will exhaust its annual renewable bioresources without intervention. In the last decades, scientists have developed strategies to reduce food loss and waste and preserve food and the environment it is grown in. In some instances, the changes that science has brought are good ones, and since we will need to feed an estimated population above 9 billion by 2050, necessary.
Science: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Let’s start with the good. Advances in agriculture have played a significant role in reducing waste from farm to consumer. Optimized distribution and growing methods have ensured less food waste during production and transportation. More importantly, with the increased demand from consumers and environmental groups for transparency, environmental impacts are much more closely regulated. New farming methods, including crop rotation, are implemented to sustain the ecological impact of farming. Science is necessary to continue providing food to our growing population.
It is, however, not all sunshine and roses. Pesticides continue to be used to reduce crop damage. In the United States, the EPA allows the use of 85 pesticides for outdoor agricultural applications that are banned or in the process of being banned elsewhere. In 2016, Canada imported $20.2 billion of these American agricultural products. What does this mean? You are consuming pesticides, and your food is not so natural anymore.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” that identifies what products are most likely contaminated2. More than likely, you have consumed one or more of what they refer to as the “Dirty Dozen” (the list includes: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, and potatoes.) It is important to note that pesticide residues are also in fruit and vegetable juices. What’s the most significant concern? One study with a nationally representative sample showed increased odds of ADD/ADHD in children eight to fifteen years old due to pesticides.1
So now we get to the ugly. According to Health Canada, a food product advertised as natural is not allowed to contain added vitamins, minerals, artificial flavorings, or food additives. That means none of its natural components, except water, can be removed. But in reality, “All Natural” doesn’t mean anything. When shopping for food, finding a product not claiming to be healthy for one reason or another is challenging. Even fruits and vegetables labeled as “organic” have had some chemical intervention to ensure they make it to the grocery store.
Any food grown as a GMO, made with artificial colors, chemical sweeteners, or preservatives can be labeled “all natural.” There is very little or vague regulation about using the word “natural,” and companies have taken this and slapped labels on products to reflect the consumers’ growing interest in health and well-being. Regulations state that labels must indicate the content of the product. They say nothing about marketing claims. Products like trail mixes will make claims like “no preservatives,” “gluten-free,” and “natural” on the package. The reality is that the preservatives and chemicals used to create them are far, far away from the products’ natural state.
Science Versus Nature
Even food found in nature can harm you – being natural is no guarantee that it is safe or healthy. Many plants in their natural form contain poisonous substances. For example, raw cashews contain a poison called urushiol, and even though you think you are buying cashews in their natural state, they are steamed or cooked. Almonds contain cyanide in their natural state. Again, some processing is required before you can eat them. Other plants, although not toxic, can cause intolerances. Soy, broccoli, and wheat germ all contain agents called phytoestrogens that cause hormonal activity. The reality is that there is only a small subset of plants that are good for you and that you can eat in their natural state without intervention.
Science, realizing this, has stepped in. Food scientists developed ways to process, preserve, package, and store food within industry and government regulations. They take otherwise inedible raw products and transform their nutritional level, quality, and lifespan with technology and science. For example, scientists have genetically modified tomatoes to stay fresh and firm for 45 days – three times as long as regular tomatoes, which start to wilt after 15 days. Naturally occurring additives like citric and lactic acid accentuate the flavor of foods and act as preservatives and antioxidants. Foods like vinegar and salt have served as capable preservatives for centuries. Science is not all bad.
In science, molecules make up everything on this planet – every fruit, vegetable, or organism. Could one then argue that molecules are natural? What if we then synthesized these molecules in a lab? Are they still natural?
Think about the vitamins you take. Vitamin C can be found naturally in fruits. This small carbohydrate molecule can also be synthesized identically in a lab by joining the same atoms together in precisely the same fashion as those found in an orange or a rose hip bush. If identical, then is this vitamin molecule not natural? (In science, no test can distinguish the biological molecule found in fruit from the synthesized one.) How do we discern where science begins and nature ends? Science has become an integral part of food, defining its outcome from the molecular level.
Science has discovered food preservation and stabilization technologies for longer shelf lives. It has brought about processing techniques such as drying to reduce water activity or high-pressure processing to reduce the microbial load that ensures food supplies remain safe to eat for much longer. (This ultimately leads to less food waste.) Separation technologies, like forward osmosis, allow the creation of bioactive foods that promote better health. (Bio-active molecules are non-essential biomolecules found in small amounts in plants and certain foods. They exhibit the capacity to modulate one or more metabolic processes.) Science has done all that.
The reality is that we can no longer depend on nature to provide the food we eat. It simply is just not enough food. Science needs to lend a helping hand. Aside from taking better care of Mother Earth, we can do a few things to keep eating as naturally as possible. First, ensure that we read the ingredients’ labels and ignore the marketing terms used. In other words, know how natural your natural product is. With today’s digital technology, learning more about the food we buy is easy. This easily accessible transparency allows for better food choices.
And concerning the Dirty Dozen of pesticide-laden foods, there are a few things that you can do—buying local produce when in season from your local market may have far fewer pesticides than those grown on large-scale agricultural farms. Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce. Of course, if you have a green thumb, you can certainly grow your own. Some nutritionists recommend that you always wash your produce and thoroughly dry them before consumption to remove some pesticide residue.
In the end, science is not going anywhere. On the contrary, nature is now dependent on it for its survival. Ultimately, I believe nature wins. Science can make foods that last longer. It can reproduce the nutrients found in foods. It can help maintain our ecological footprint. It can maintain nature.
1 Bouchard et al. Pediatrics. 2010 Jun. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ PubMed/20478945
2 Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/