August 11, 2010

“Real Natural” by Jessica Piscitelli

Recently I put on the radio as I readied my lunch. It was tuned, as usual, to WAMU, the local NPR station. I heard Jessica Piscitelli introduced as a commentary writer from Northern Virginia. My ears perked up when I heard the title, Real Natural. Oh yes, Jessica's commentary was on target and real true. It's reprinted here with permission. Thank you Jessica!

Buyer beware. Real is the new natural.

Americans love to be healthy. Or, more accurately, we love our health products.

Every year Americans consume more and more quote, unquote 'health foods' and every year Americans gain more weight, suffer more diseases, and maintain our status as one of the least healthy countries in the world.

Part of the problem is that we believe what we read on labels.

A few years ago I started noticing the word natural on a lot of products. I try to be healthy and make wise choices at the grocery store... and there is something very reassuring about the idea that the food you are purchasing is 'natural.' As in, not just a bunch of chemicals, not processed.

But it turns out that natural doesn’t mean anything. Unlike organic, there is no regulation on the word natural. To quote the U-S-D-A food safety and inspection service: “Because context determines the meaning of ‘natural,’ a single regulatory definition for the term would either conflict with consumer understanding, or be so complex as to be unworkable.” So, if a fruit drink or product that you are buying says it includes natural ingredients or flavors, that could mean anything – and it definitely does not mean healthy.

But natural is so last year. What health food hungry Americans crave now is 'real' food. We have been told real is better. Fast food restaurants advertise the use of 'real' chicken, 'real' cream, and 'real' ingredients in their quest to win over health conscious, fast food loving Americans.

Of course, that's just the beginning. Soon enough you'll see 'real' plastered across boxes of mac and cheese, cans of soup and bottles of condiments, just as we see 'natural' products everywhere. But real, like natural, is entirely unregulated.

Real and natural are both easy to find, if that’s what you are looking for. If the product is one ingredient, like lettuce, or fish, you can be pretty sure it’s real. If the product wouldn’t last more than a week on your counter, you can be pretty sure it’s natural. Look for plants and animals as close to the state they exist in nature as you can get them. Anything else is just unnatural.