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Why “natural” food has become a secular stand-in for goodness and purity

A religion professor explains.

Bushels of apples
All-natural apple flavor.
Getty Images

It sounds good, the idea of eating “naturally.” There are natural food stores and natural sweeteners. You can buy all-natural grapefruit juice. You can buy “natural artisan flavor birthday cake flavoring.” Instructions for following a paleo diet advise that you eat only natural foods, like your pre-agricultural ancestors. “Natural” recalls a prelapsarian past, the way food was supposed to be before we messed it up with industry.

But defining “natural” food has proved difficult. The FDA still does not have an official definition of the designation, although they are trying; in March 2018, the agency announced they’d be announcing one “very soon.” (They have not yet.) Emotionally, we know what “natural” is. Scientifically, it’s much less clear.

Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison and a freelance journalist who’s written widely about our collective enchantment with the concept of “natural,” argues that the question of what qualifies is not simply a nutritional issue, but a moral one.

“Natural” connotes “goodness,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post, dissecting the current lawsuit over the relative natural or unnatural merits of LaCroix sparkling water. “Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health,” he wrote. “Physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy.’”

So how did we get here, worshiping at the altar of the natural? And are we wrong? I called Levinovitz to talk about the relationship between food and morality.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rachel Sugar

A lot of your recent writing makes the case that the discourse around food closely mirrors the discourse around religion. There are “good” foods and “bad” foods and “guilt-free” foods. Ordering or not ordering French fries has moral weight. Why is that?

Alan Levinovitz

The way that we create identity for ourselves is — in part, at least — through rituals, and the ritual of eating is a really important one. We have to do it three times a day, it’s very personal, we take something from outside of our bodies and put it inside of our bodies, so it makes sense that we would really pay attention to that ritual as something that helps us to articulate our values.

It seems to me that a lot of the really intense debate that we see around food and what we should eat and what we shouldn’t eat is bound up with larger questions of our identity and how we understand really broad moral questions, like our duties to the environment or our duties to animals.

Rachel Sugar

One of the things that gets really morally weighted is the idea of natural food being better. Natural is good. Artificial is bad. Where does that association come from?

Alan Levinovitz

When I started researching food and thinking about food and talking to people about how they choose the foods that they want to eat, the idea that what’s natural is what’s good came up again and again. People wanted to find natural foods, they would look for “natural” on food labels, and they also wanted to adjust their dietary patterns to what they considered natural.

It became clear to me that “natural” was sort of a secular stand-in for a generalized understanding of goodness, which in religion you’d call holiness, or purity, or something like that. “Nature,” with a capital N, was taking the place of God. In a secular society, we don’t look to religions to tell us what to eat or how to heal ourselves, so you need a secular substitute when it comes to generalized guidance for what you can eat, and that secularized substitute is nature.

There’s this idea of nature as a kind of entity that wills certain things and has designed things in one way and not another, and that gets weighted morally: What nature is becomes what ought to be. In that sense, it really performs a lot of the functions that God performs in traditional religious thought.

Rachel Sugar

Has it always been that way? I keep thinking about periods in history where people were really excited about highly processed foods — the 1950s, for example, when you start to see a real boom in convenience foods.

A TV dinner, close up
Probably not “natural.”
Getty Images/Tetra Images RF

Alan Levinovitz

Yeah, it’s not always been the case, or at least it’s been the case, but in complicated ways. If we go back a long, long time, we find that ideas of how humans should relate to nature had to do with perfecting nature.

In early Indian cuisine, you would purify butter to get ghee, and the ideal form of butter was this clarified, purified form. Refined foods were the ideal foods. You wanted refined grains; you wanted white rice. Refined products were eaten by refined people. You get the same reflection of morality in food production, except back then, the idea was that humans were supposed to perfect nature.

But it’s complicated. Even if you go back through Shakespeare’s plays, “unnatural” is a synonym for “bad.” An “unnatural” death means you’re murdered, whereas a “natural” death is dying of old age in your bed. So the idea that natural is synonymous with good and unnatural is synonymous with evil really does run through history strongly — it’s just how we conceive of what’s natural that gets complicated.

Rachel Sugar

So I guess I should back up and ask what might be the most basic question: When we say “natural” today, what do we even mean?

Alan Levinovitz

I think that right now, what “natural” means in a very broad sense is “systems that exist beyond and before human beings.” I think about it on a continuum. The most natural things are things that would have existed without humans interfering at all, and the least natural things are things we can only imagine existing with human interference. Maybe ferns in some untouched valley would be the most natural thing.

Rachel Sugar

You see a lot of people concerned about eating “chemicals,” which are framed as “unnatural” — though obviously, everything has chemicals. It doesn’t really make sense. But you also understand what people mean: Eat an apple, not a bag of Doritos.

Alan Levinovitz

People may not understand lots of traditional food production methods, but they feel like they understand them. They feel like they know how an apple tree grows, even if they don’t actually know how industrial apple farms work.

That’s a very different process than, say, steam-cracking petrochemicals and turning those into apple flavor. It may be the case that “apple flavor” is a chemical in the same way that “the juice from an apple from an apple tree” is a chemical, but what people mean when they say “I don’t want chemicals in my food” is “I don’t want substances that are produced through methods that are fundamentally alien to me and relatively recent and therefore not time-tested in my food.”

Rachel Sugar

The FDA has yet to offer a definition of “natural,” which makes sense, because it sounds like you’re saying it’s just really, really hard to define.

Alan Levinovitz

It’s impossible. As a term, it’s as difficult to define as “God” or “good.”

Rachel Sugar

But they keep opening up the question for public comment, right?

Alan Levinovitz

Yeah, I’ve gone through the comments. I wrote a piece for NPR about the meaning of “natural,” and I went through a ton of these comments. There were some explicit references to God — what’s natural is what God meant for us to eat. The idea being that there are these systems that aren’t human-created, they’re created by God, and those produce certain kinds of foods. Those are the foods that we’re meant to consume.

Rachel Sugar

What do you see as driving the current obsession with natural food?

Alan Levinovitz

I think right now, we — and when I say “we,” I mean likely readers of a Vox piece — are very conscious of the bad effects that humans are having on the world. We’re conscious of climate change. We’re conscious of deforestation. We’re conscious of the evil of industrial agriculture.

That is a moral impurity that we feel acutely and that’s also very difficult to transcend. We’re part of these systems. What are you going to do? At the end of the day, you just have to buy your food. You’re part of this food system. That makes us feel guilty. That’s a kind of impurity, and the way we transcend that is through seeking out that which is natural, because what is natural, at least in theory, is what wouldn’t harm the environment. If it’s the way it was meant to be, then it isn’t caused by us and therefore isn’t our fault. So there’s a way in which buying “natural” outsources agency to nature, and if you’re buying things that are created by nature, it can’t be your fault if they’re bad.

It’s a symbolic way to remove ourselves from a system that we feel is deeply flawed. There’s a kind of ancient magical formula, “you are what you eat,” and when you eat things that are created in a system that is bad for the world, there’s also a sense that they’re bad for you. And that comes out of a whole different set of anxieties: this idea that ultra-processed foods are making us sick and that we’re overeating; we’ve got all these allergies, and who knows where they’re coming from? Our microbiomes are all messed up. And so again, the solution to a suite of very complicated problems becomes just eating the way you’re meant to eat, a.k.a. eating natural foods.

Rachel Sugar

In the piece you wrote recently for the Washington Post, you suggest that buying natural products is “the modern equivalent of buying indulgences.” That if we buy unprocessed grains ethically harvested, we can absolve our guilt about our role in the food system.

Alan Levinovitz

Yeah, I think that we do that. I mean, certainly I try to do it. The ubiquity of something like fair trade is the sense that we’re at the top of a food system that is exploitative, so how do we get out of that? Well, we pay a little bit more for the fair-trade chocolate, and then we feel better about it.

Rachel Sugar

Is that bad?

Alan Levinovitz

That’s good. It’s good in the same way that indulgences were good, which is that if you cared about the church, you would want to fund it. In that sense, buying fair trade or buying sustainably sourced food or ethically produced meat at Whole Foods — whatever it is you’re spending extra money on — I think in principle, it isn’t a bad thing. But like indulgences, I think there’s the illusion that somehow that’s all you need. That’s it. The system is fixed; you can just buy your way to fixing the system.

I’m deeply suspicious of that impulse. While I’m sympathetic with the people that think advocating for natural stuff is silly, and that industrial agriculture feeds lots of people, and, despite lots of mistakes, things are slowly getting better, and there are fewer people who are starving, etc., I think all of that is true, but I’m also very suspicious when those same people say, “And so all we have to do is just keep buying things, and if we buy the right things, then eventually everything will be fixed.”

Rachel Sugar

So what should we do with all this? It sounds like, on the one hand, it’s not irrational for people to eat food they understand. On the other, a lot of food innovations that seem like they might address a lot of global problems — climate change, hunger — are complicated. Lab-grown meat is hard to understand. GMOs are hard to understand. How should we think about the value of “natural”?

Alan Levinovitz

I think in the case of “natural” or “nature,” we need to think about what we mean by those terms, and then start saying what we mean instead of hiding it behind the term.

I think we all need to do this initial foundational work of defining what it is that we value and what we mean when we say we want to protect nature, or we want to eat natural foods. We need to think about why we want those things, and try to articulate that clearly ourselves so that we can eventually adjudicate decisions between different communities and different individuals about what we’re going to eat or how we’re going to treat the world, using shared terms that are clear instead of vaguely theistic.

But you also want certain kinds of foods to be available to you at all times. That’s an aesthetic preference that doesn’t line up with what’s natural, and you’re going to have to balance those, the same way we want to be free, but we also don’t want to be completely free — we get into relationships. I think that we need to isolate the value of what’s natural, detach it from a kind of deified nature, and then think about what it is that we value about it, and how we can measure that against other things that we also value.

Then you start to imagine a world in which you have natural and unnatural things existing side by side, in a way that you have beautiful things and efficient things that aren’t so beautiful existing side by side. The reality of it is that as humans, we always will live in a balance of natural and unnatural.

I think because of where we are technologically and the size of our population, those questions are really pressing. I don’t think simplistic understandings of what’s natural are helpful when we are trying to address them.

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