The Fuzzy Line between Natural and Artificial

Like many people these days, I have a strong preference for “natural” over “artificial”. I avoid foods that contain artificial flavors or colors. Most of my clothes are made from natural fibers. I cook most of my own meals, primarily using fresh, natural ingredients rather than packaged foods. My idea of “going out” to have a good time is to escape to a natural landscape to hike or to take nature photos.

And yet, as an avid student of nature, I also see that the dividing line between “natural” and “artificial” is often quite fuzzy. There is a huge gray area in the middle of this dichotomy, and the more you know about the topic, the more obvious this gray area becomes. The existence of a gray area does not invalidate the concept of “natural” versus “artificial”, but it can make the distinction a bit tricky at times.

Consider, as an analogy, the dichotomy between “fresh” and “spoiled”. It is obviously important to distinguish between food that is fresh and food that is spoiled. Yet we all recognize that there is no sharp boundary between the two. Instead, it is more like a continuum, as our stored food items gradually progress from a fresh state to a spoiled state. Because of this gray area, we must use our judgement as to whether items in the refrigerator or pantry ought to be eaten or thrown away. The fact that we often struggle with this gray area does not invalidate the distinction between fresh and spoiled. By the same token, it is worthwhile to explore the gray area between “natural” and “artificial”, without fear that this will invalidate the distinction.

The crucial question is how to go about distinguishing “natural” from “artificial”. If we only look at the most extreme examples of both categories, then the difference appears to be obvious. For example, if we see the phrase “wild-caught salmon”, then we immediately assume “natural” (even though the fish might have been born in a fish hatchery as part of a selective breeding program). If we see the phrase “propyl-ρ-hydroxybenzoate”, then we immediately assume “artificial” (even though this compound occurs naturally in some plants and insects). Unfortunately, most examples are even less clear-cut than these. Therefore we often rely on rules of thumb to help us make the distinction. To create such rules, it is helpful to agree on definitions for the words “natural” and “artificial”.

A common definition of “natural” is “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”. Most people would agree that this is a reasonable definition. So let’s attempt to apply this definition to a specific case. Let’s start with a block of cheese, which could be cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, Havarti, camembert, or any other variety of aged cheese. Is this cheese “natural”? Many of us, when mentally dividing the world into natural versus artificial things, would place these types of cheese on the side of natural things. However, a wheel of cheese clearly violates the above definition of “natural”, because it was obviously made by humans. We would never find a block of cheese growing wild in nature somewhere.

So let’s consider an easier example. Imagine a luscious heirloom tomato, grown in your own backyard garden, without the use of any pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Certainly we would all agree that such a tomato is “natural”. And yet it still does not fit our earlier definition of natural, because heirloom tomatoes would not exist without a long history of intervention by humans. Such tomatoes never existed in the wild. Humans long ago domesticated the ancestor of our tomato plants, and then transported these plants all over the world. Our modern tomatoes, and even our heirloom tomatoes, bear little resemblance to the wild ancestor. (Even our cherry tomatoes are gigantic by comparison.) Virtually all of our heirloom tomatoes were developed in human gardens thousands of miles from the ancestral home of the species. Very few of our tomato varieties would survive for long if released into nature. Our heirloom tomatoes exist only due to constant human intervention. Furthermore, our backyard gardens, where we grow these tomatoes, are clearly man-made, and bear little resemblance to any location that we would find in nature.

So what should we do about this contradiction? Should we say that heirloom tomatoes are not natural, or should we find a more appropriate definition of the word “natural”? If we use the original definition of natural, then no agricultural product would fit the definition. And yet the original meaning of “natural” has some important applications, as in a natural landscape, a natural lake, or even a natural catastrophe. But when we apply the word “natural” to agricultural products, we are implicitly assuming a completely different definition of the word “natural”.

And this is perfectly okay. Almost all of our words have multiple definitions, and we have no problem with this. We just need to agree on a good definition for the word “natural” when applied to agriculture, especially foods. Unfortunately, such a definition has been extremely hard to produce. Most such attempts are merely lists of disqualifying factors, such as “no artificial pesticides”, “no artificial fertilizers”, and “no artificial colors”. Such an approach does not tell us what natural is — it only provides some examples of what it is not. Therefore such an approach is never complete, because we can (and probably will) continue to add disqualifying factors to the list. Furthermore, most of the disqualifying factors depend upon the definitions of other terms, such as “artificial”, which are often vaguely defined. And finally, there is no consistent criterion for deciding upon the ever-growing list of disqualifying factors. It would be much simpler if we could agree on a straightforward, coherent definition for what “natural” actually means, when applied to agricultural products, instead of trying to list all of the possible disqualifying factors.

One approach is to look for a common thread in all of the proposed disqualifying factors. One such link is fairly obvious. All of the most-cited disqualifying factors depend upon techniques or technologies developed in the past 300 years, after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In effect, we are willing to give a free pass to virtually any technique or technology that is more than 300 years old. In other words, we “grandfather” these older methods, and assume that they qualify as “natural”. Of course, there are a few exceptions among the older technologies. For example, we no longer accept the age-old practice of sweetening wine with lead, which is quite toxic. Still, this common thread suggests that we could possibly define natural foods as “any food product produced strictly in accordance with techniques and technology that are at least 300 years old”.

I imagine that some people would enjoy purchasing samples of “natural foods” that fit this definition. (I know that I would enjoy it.) But this would be too restrictive for most purposes, for several reasons. First, it would eliminate any food produced with the aid of tractors or any other motorized equipment. Second, it would eliminate all new varieties of crops developed in the past 300 years, which is most of what we eat. (We’d have to track down ancient heirloom varieties of all of our crops — but most such varieties vanished or evolved into new varieties long ago.) And third, we would face a long list of additional restrictions, such as avoiding the use of any tools or devices that are made of plastic, or have plastic handles.

We could instead select a more recent cutoff date, such as 200 years ago, or 100 years ago. But we would still face difficulties, because banning all modern technologies would be overkill. Furthermore, the more recent the cutoff date, the more likelihood that certain technologies that we distrust would be allowed by the definition.

So it looks like we might be stuck with the approach of creating a long list of disqualifying factors, without actually defining what “natural” really means. In that case, we had better do a good job of defining what “artificial” means, because this word appears in so many of our disqualifying factors. A typical definition of artificial is “made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural”. Unfortunately, this puts us back where we started, because all agriculture is the result of human activity, and all of our common crops and farm animals have been bred by humans to be dramatically different from their wild, natural ancestors. The phrase “typically as a copy of something natural” provides some helpful insight, suggesting that most artificial things are meant to replace natural things. This is certainly a key point, but it does not apply to everything that we might consider artificial. For example, we would probably all agree that “propyl-ρ-hydroxybenzoate” sounds rather artificial, regardless of whether or not it is intended to replace something that is natural. (It should also be noted that many naturally occurring compounds have names that are just as complicated as this one.)

This puts us in an uncomfortable position. It appears that the words “natural” and “artificial”, when applied to foods and other agricultural products, are words without a precise meaning — but with a great deal of emotional impact. This does not mean that the underlying concepts are meaningless or unimportant. But it does underscore the challenge of navigating through the immense gray area between the two extremes, and the difficulty of properly assigning every possible example to the category of “natural” or the category of “artificial”.

A useful exercise is to try to explain our rules of thumb without using the words “natural” and “artificial”. For example, what rules of thumb help us to distinguish between natural and artificial colors, or between natural and artificial flavors? For most of us, “natural” means that the coloring or flavor compounds can be found in plants or animals, and all we have to do is extract them without changing them. In contrast, we assume that “artificial” means that the compounds were “made in a lab”, or more precisely, that the compounds were synthesized from other compounds in some sort of manufacturing plant. This is certainly how I think about natural versus artificial flavors and colors.

The thing is, we tend to forget that we have lots of traditional methods for making chemical changes in plant and animals products, and these methods are grandfathered in. For instance, when we roast or otherwise cook food, the heat causes dramatic chemical changes that greatly change the flavors. Yet we don’t object if our foods are roasted or cooked, and we don’t consider it to be unnatural. We employ fermentation to produce chemical changes in some of our foods, not just beer and wine and bread, but many other foods as well. For example, coffee beans go through a period of fermentation prior to being roasted, and both processes are required to generate the chemical changes that produce the flavors that we enjoy. We can also make chemical changes by adding reactive ingredients, such as acids (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.). So in fact, it is perfectly fine to make all sorts of chemical changes in our food products — and to call the result “natural” — as long as we use techniques that have been around for a long time, and as long as the starting ingredients come from plants and animals. (We can also add salt and certain other selected minerals as well.)

The gray areas are multiplying, and yet I still find it personally important to distinguish between “natural” and “artificial”. So let’s try another approach.

For many people, one key distinction between natural and artificial is “no added chemicals”. Again, I’m philosophically in agreement with this concept, and yet I again see a huge gray area. The problem is the fuzzy definition of the word “chemical”. This is another word that has multiple meanings — a precise scientific definition and some rather fuzzy popular definitions. One popular definition for “chemical” is “a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, especially artificially”. (Again we have that fuzzy word “artificial”, which apparently means that the material was prepared by humans.) When we hear the word “chemical”, many of us picture rows of jars on a shelf in a laboratory. Each jar contains a mysterious liquid or powder with a long, strange name. We also imagine that most of these substances are dangerous or toxic in some way.

Any yet, our kitchens all contains products that qualify as “a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared”. We are perfectly happy to grant exceptions to these items. Sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cream of tartar are all given a free pass, even though they all fit the definition. Wheat flour, distilled vinegar, and vodka also fit the definition. These items (except perhaps vodka) are all traditionally used in the kitchen, and therefore they seem natural to us. Therefore we exclude them from our mental category of “chemicals”.

If instead we walk into the garage or some other storage area in the house, we are likely to find substances that we unambiguously call “chemicals”. For instance, we might find a can of turpentine and a can of mineral spirits. These are certainly chemicals, but are these substances unnatural? Turpentine is made by distilling the sap of pine trees — which is no more unnatural than distilled vinegar, vodka (another distilled product), or even maple syrup (the concentrated sap of another tree). Mineral spirits are made by distilling petroleum, and petroleum is created entirely by nature. Yet we certainly don’t want any turpentine or mineral spirits in our food. Just because these materials are relatively natural doesn’t give them a free pass.

In science, the word “chemical” is an adjective, not a noun, but informally we sometimes use the word as shorthand for “chemical compound”. This phrase represents a very important scientific concept, essentially meaning a collection of molecules that are all the same kind. However, this concept does not help us distinguish between natural and artificial, because virtually all of the matter around us is made of chemical compounds. Water (H2O) is a chemical compound, as is sucrose (table sugar) and sodium chloride (table salt). All proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and so on are chemical compounds.

And yet we have good reason to be cautious or even fearful about some of the chemical compounds that surround us in the modern era, including some of the chemical compounds in our foods. There are several reasons that such caution is justified, but the principal reason is that in the past 100 years, humans have succeeded in synthesizing millions of new chemical compounds that never existed before. We have found all sorts of powerful uses for these compounds — in plastics, medicines, pest control, electronics, manufacturing, and on and on. These materials have completely transformed our lives, making our modern societies possible. But these new substances have appeared at such a furious pace that we are not always able to predict or discover the unintended harm that some of them might cause. Of course, it would be absurd to condemn all newly invented compounds just because some are harmful. Furthermore, it would be completely impractical to eliminate all such compounds from our modern world. Still, as a prudent measure of caution, it makes sense that many of us would like to minimize the presence of such compounds in our foods.

As of 2009, humans had isolated or synthesized more than 50 million different chemical compounds, based on how many had been registered with the American Chemical Society. As of today, less than eight years later, the number of such compounds now exceeds 127 million. Some of these are naturally occurring compounds, isolated primarily from plants, animals, and microorganisms. But a far greater number are newly synthesized compounds that never existed before.

Of course, not every newly synthesized compound is toxic or dangerous — far from it. And by the same token, huge numbers of naturally occurring compounds are highly toxic. One of the most toxic compounds known to humankind is the botulinum toxin (which causes botulism), naturally produced by a species of bacteria. Death cap mushrooms are completely natural, and yet you will die if you eat one. The compounds found in the bite of a cobra or the sting of a box jellyfish are completely natural, and yet being natural does not make them safe. Anthrax, arsenic, asbestos, belladonna, hemlock, oleander, ricin, and tobacco are all products of nature, and yet they can cause us great harm. The natural world is full of toxic compounds, and this is part of what makes the world a dangerous place. And yet you will sometimes hear people say that anything natural is good and healthful, while anything artificial is bad and harmful — which is obviously not the case. But even if we were to determine (hypothetically) that natural and synthetic compounds have identical rates of toxicity (for example, 20% of all compounds), we would still have good reason to worry about the rapid proliferation of new compounds. More precisely, we have reason to worry about under-studied compounds (most of which are new and synthetic) being introduced at a rapid pace into the products that surround us.

The flip side is that we should not automatically believe every scare story that gets circulated on the internet about the newly discovered dangers of one chemical compound or another. Many of these stories are utterly false, and many others are based on weak, preliminary evidence that simply points to the need for more research. Caution is warranted, but in most cases panic is not. And yet, every once in a while, a scary story will emerge that turns out to be true, or at least partly true. Additional scary stories — true stories — await future discovery.

The upshot is that it can make good sense to be suspicious of synthetic compounds — especially compounds that have never existed in nature. (The issue of synthetic equivalents to natural compounds is complicated, and deserves its own essay.) But this is simply a way of playing the odds. If we rely primarily on “natural” foods, regardless of how the term is defined, then we greatly reduce the risk of exposing ourselves to substances whose dangers have not been adequately evaluated. Equally important, a “natural” diet is more consistent with what our bodies have evolved to process, and therefore less likely to cause health problems.

So, given the profusion of fuzzy gray areas between “natural” and “artificial”, what should we do? As a society, there are many things we might do — but these are policy questions that require extensive debate. As individuals, we simply need to apply our own best judgement, as we do when distinguishing between “fresh” and “spoiled” food. You and I may both be interested in eating natural food, but we might apply different criteria to achieve that goal.

For me, I start by preparing nearly all of my own meals, very seldom eating out. I primarily fill my shopping cart with many kinds of fresh produce, small quantities of fresh meat, and some dairy products. When I buy packaged goods, I mostly buy packages that contain only a single ingredient each — such as frozen spinach (only spinach), canned pumpkin (only pumpkin), corn meal (only ground corn), and rice. If I purchase any packaged product that contains more than one ingredient, then I read the label to be certain that I understand and trust every single ingredient listed. For example, I don’t mind seeing pectin, guar gum, or xanthan gum on the label, because I perceive these as being harmless plant products that are used as thickening agents. But there are many potential ingredients that I don’t trust at all, and I therefore avoid.

You, the reader, might have a completely different set of criteria that you apply to achieve a “natural” diet. You and I might have different details that we fear or distrust, and different things that we trust. For example, you might be fine with packaged foods, and you might be fine with eating out every day, but you rely heavily on the word “organic” as your principal criterion for choosing foods. And yet we are both striving for the same general goal, which is to eat “healthy” by eating “natural”. Understanding the huge gray area between natural and artificial does not diminish the importance of trying to make such a distinction. Instead, it serves to make us better-informed consumers as we each apply our own best judgement.

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