Natural. Organic. No artificial colours, flavourings or preservatives. They’re great marketing terms, but pretty meaningless in the real world. Just how natural is that flapjack from the health food shop? I doubt it was picked from a flapjack tree by organic fairies. Instead it was made, by humans, from oats and other ingredients grown in bulk on farms outside the plants’ natural habitats. They were harvested, usually mechanically, then processed by more machines. The mix wasn’t left to cure in the heat of a mediterranean noonday sun, nor even baked in a clay oven heated by wood. Rather it was cooked in an artifical oven, powered by gas or electricity, before being sliced, diced and packaged by more machines, loaded onto an air-polluting truck, and delivered to the shop. Naturally.

The problem is that there’s no clear definition of what is “natural”. We generally get the gut feeling that an apple is natural, but that chewing gum is not – even though that apple was probably stored way beyond its usual shelf life in a not-so-natural atmosphere rich in carbon-dioxide. Taken to its logical extreme you could argue that any processed food is the result of the action of natural organisms – it’s just that those natural organisms happen to be human beings. Taken to its illogical extreme it becomes clear that every atom in nature started out in a star or accretion disk, so absolutely everything is natural.

The Feedback section at the back of New Scientist often pokes fun at products which purport to contain “no chemicals”. But such is people’s distrust of science that the word “chemical” has negative connotations, rather than the benign associations it should have. When faced with such attitudes it’s hardly surprising that vendors have discovered the benefit of marketing “natural” products to an almost anti-science public.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m happy for products to be labelled as natural, organic or free-range. Where it leads to better animal welfare and more informed customers, it can be a good thing. But as consumers we should definitely be a bit more cynical of such claims. After all if it’s natural, it might also mean that it’s full of insects.

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