So you think you're natural? Take the test

So you think you're natural? Take the test

Deciding what is and is not natural is a finicky task. So what if we devised an experiment that quantifies food products to discern their naturalness? Use this interactive model to see if your food product should be defined as "natural."

I’m going to liken the natural industry to a college freshman who just discovered Nietzsche… stay with me here. Not only do we both cultivate an individualistic mindset (and likely enjoy the occasional home-brewed kombucha), but also we’re both on the brink of defining our identity.

The term “natural,” of course, is the crux of our self-discovery.

When you view the word through marketing or advertising scopes, natural doesn’t mean much. “Many foods labeled as ‘natural’ include substances that are anything but, including toxic pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically engineered ingredients,” says Only Organic, the advocacy group supported by members of the organic industry. Plus, if you stamp “natural” onto a packaged food, the product is primed for a lawsuit that could end in an expensive settlement, as companies ranging from Naked Juice to PopChips can recount first-hand.

But natural actually means a lot. It’s a loaded term that we massage to suit our own food values. The word can mean non-GMO to some or a short ingredient list to others; it can mean eating an apple plucked directly from a tree or taking a quercetin-containing supplement derived from apple skins.

The problem isn’t that natural is meaningless. It’s that natural means too much.

As an editorial in the journal Nature aptly put, “Ultimately, our visceral concept of what is 'natural' depends on what we are used to.”

The term is a fluid definition to describe food because it morphs under the influence of manufacturers, marketers, advertisers, consumers and even, ahem, editors. (I’m certainly guilty of spewing “natural” across my keyboard in lieu of seeking another suitable word.)

But how can we avoid misappropriations of “natural” if we don’t have any united explanation? What kind of umbrella verbiage should we use if we want to talk about rigidly defined terms—organic, non-GMO, gluten free, vegan, paleo—as a whole? Simply omitting the word from our food vocabulary, as a recent Consumer Reports campaign suggests, will only transfer natural’s convolution onto another vague term (such as “clean,” “conscious, or “fresh”).

I wonder, what if we devised an experiment that quantifies food products to discern their naturalness? Could we answer the age-old question posed by Descartes and Derek Zoolander alike: “Who am I?”

A “natural” experiment

I divided the concept of naturalness into four categories important to our industry: Ingredients, Sustainability, Non-GMO and Ethics. I assigned each category a weight that contributes to an end score. For example, I care a lot about a product's ingredients, so I made this category account for 50 percent of the total score. Sustainability accounts for 25 percent, non-GMO for 15 percent and ethics for 10 percent. Do you believe that sourcing non-GMO ingredients should trump sustainability? Try adjusting the weight of each category in the below Excel sheet to suit your personal preference—they just need to add up to 100.

Deciding what is and is not natural is a finicky task, so I worked off my own knowledge as a relatively informed natural consumer and ingredients that have been pinpointed in natural lawsuits—“dicey ingredients”—that cost five points out of a total score. If a product exceeds 10 dicey ingredients, it receives a zero out of 50 in the Ingredients category.

Let’s get started by examining typical conventional cheese snack crackers. I considered the following ingredients dicey because they are inherently synthetic, have undergone an artificially chemical process to be created, are not approved by New Hope’s Standards department or I’m simply not sure what they exactly are.

  • Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil
  • Autolyzed Yeast Extract
  • Calcium Phosphate
  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • Sodium Caseinate

Five dicey ingredients translate to a score of 25 out of 50 in the Ingredients category.  

Sustainability is broad, and it can range from organic farming to environmental initiatives. For example, the crackers may contain cheese from a factory farm, but are manufactured in an environmentally superior facility. In my model, a product can achieve half of the total sustainability points by having an agricultural certification (USDA Organic, Demeter Certified, etc.), or by indicating sustainability was important during their production. Our conventional cheese crackers do neither, so they score a zero out of 25 in Sustainability.

If a product is Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA Certified, it receives the entire 15 points in the Non-GMO category. Our crackers happen to contain a Non-GMO Project Verification, so they receive a 15 out of 15.

Finally, let’s examine ethics, a category I believe should be included in the natural conversation. (Sustainable ingredients harvested in squalid working conditions do nothing for human rights—a facet of food natural consumers care about.) I award five points if a product contains traceability information online; certification by a human-rights organization (Fair Trade, Fair for Life, B Corp, etc) adds another five. Our cheese crackers receive a zero in the entire category, earning a final score of 52.5 percent.

Conversely, organic tortilla chips, which contain no dicey ingredients, receive a 95. The product scores perfectly in Sustainability (USDA Organic, offsets energy emissions) and Non-GMO (by default because it’s organic), but contains no human-rights certification seal.

Now check out the abysmal score for a conventional frozen meal—23 dicey ingredients and no agricultural certification earns zero points for Ingredients, Non-GMO and Ethics—but the company does have sustainability information online. Under this system, the frozen meal is 12.5 percent natural. Boom. 

Yes, it's flawed

There are obvious imperfections with my model. Not only is it rife with my own biases about food values, but also it’s a clunky, gravely simplified manner of understanding food naturalness. I fail to mention nutritional value at all. I recognize that a carrot would score lower on the natural scale than organic tortilla chips—if you pull a carrot out of your home garden it’s not going to have a Fair Trade Certification or a website where I can learn about environmental initiatives.

Maybe we shouldn’t be filtering products through a data-driven Excel sieve anyway. Negate the story of food products and you don’t truly comprehend them. For example, perhaps a manufacturer forgoes an organic certification to keep costs down, so the healthy food has a better likelihood of being bought by those on a budget, as is the mission with Denver-based Love Grown Foods.

However, this experiment is a good stab at boiling down natural to a meaning we can all stand behind. Do I think “natural” should be reduced to a number? Should every food product that scores below 65 be considered non-natural? No.

But while the answer to our identity predicament likely won’t be “Mer-Man!”, we should first pinpoint values important to “natural,” and then methodologically refine them into universally agreeable criteria.

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