The Real Problem with ‘Natural’ Foods

Organic, natural, pesticide-free, free-range. Do these terms really mean anything, or are they just a marketing ploy to sell more food?

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10 for $10. Double Coupon week. Manager’s special – $2.99. Last chance to get fresh summer squash. I feel immediately overwhelmed as I walk through the sliding doors of my local grocer. For me, a trip to the grocery store has never been a simple chore. When I was thirteen, I dragged my feet every time my parents needed to go food shopping for the week. My aversion was so strong that my dad once sighed exasperatedly and said, “We all know, dear, it’s a dreadful place.”

He said it to mock me, but the truth is, I just hate grocery shopping. The realization you made the wrong decision between a basket and a cart. That scramble to put all of your items on the conveyor belt as a disapproving line forms behind you. Doubling back to get that one item you forgot on your list after planning your route just perfectly. If I can get out of there in under thirty minutes, I consider the trip a triumph. But the worst part, the most challenging aspect?

The produce aisle.

“Organic,” “Natural,” “Preservative-free,” “No pesticides.” What does it all mean? Is organic worth the extra price? Will the regular bananas give me cancer? Is natural really better for you?

“Natural” gives the impression that something is pure and free of manipulation, so that must mean natural food is better, right? But in reality, nature tries to kill people everyday. Take raw milk for instance. Some bloggers firmly advocate consumption of raw milk, straight from the cow with all of its natural bacteria, even suggesting that it helps maintain normal levels of gut flora (the microorganisms that digest your food). Painting pasteurization, the very necessary process of heating milk to kill harmful bacteria, as the villain is incredibly misleading, because it makes milk safe to drink.

So natural doesn’t always mean good for you, but what about organic? You may have noticed by now that the concept of GMOs – genetically modified organisms – is a hot-button issue, and the organic movement gains momentum every day based on the assumption that GMOs are unsafe to eat, and yet GM produce is, in fact, perfectly safe – hundreds of studies exist to support this claim, and according to this 2014 analysis, GM crops effectively minimize the need for those harmful pesticides everyone is so worried about — because these plants have been engineered to be resistant to insects.

Yet anti-GMO campaigns are strong. The pressure to eliminating the chemicals and go “GMO-free” is so strong that major companies, like Chipotle and Panera, are changing their menu to remove them and hundreds of other benign additives, even in the absence of scientific evidence. The USDA recently announced that they would verify non-GMO foods and label them as such. So what to believe?

Definitely don’t trust anything labeled as “natural.” It doesn’t really mean anything. For a food to be organic, the USDA certifies that it hasn’t been treated with pesticides, herbicides, or NPK fertilizers, and, in the case of meat products, the animal has not consumed antibiotics or growth hormones. Natural makes no such promises, and any company can use the label to cash in on the health craze.

So what can you trust, when there seems to be convincing studies on both sides of the fence? A good practice is to check out the studies that articles are referencing — a lot of the time, they can turn out to be total bunk. So before you switch to exclusively buying organic, “all-natural” foods — do thorough research by reading multiple sources. According to a recent Pew survey, 88% of scientists report that GMOs are safe, compared to only 37% of Americans. This gap is a direct result of the rampant spread of misinformation regarding GM foods.

This means that, for now, on my next trip to that “dreadful” place, I won’t be buying organic. Unless I accidentally grab it in an attempt to set a new record time for grocery shopping.

Robin Gillespie
Robin spends her time producing video, curating Spotify playlists, and hanging with her cats. She loves apartment-friendly workouts and attempting to include more greens in her diet. She has strong opinions about pickles and secret menus.