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All-Natural Nonsense

Is it true that natural is better? I almost feel like a heretic saying it, but I find the almost universally accepted notion that “natural” products are superior to the alternative to be problematic. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but what does the word “natural” even mean? That it comes from the ground? That it was grown free of pesticides? That a three year old can take a few swigs from the bottle without having to be rushed to the ER? Or maybe that it’s free of chemicals?

Ah, chemicals. A week ago if someone mentioned that I was exposed to chemicals while eating, cleaning, or washing in my home, I would have been perturbed. I guess that’s because I’ve been immersed in the redefinition of chemicals as nasty little things that punish humans for going against nature. But everything has a chemical composition–they’re literally everywhere. To illustrate the point, observe this herbal shampoo user’s chemical regrets:

“I shudder to think now about how many chemicals I have previously soaked my scalp in.”

And the irreverent response:

Now frankly, it’s impossible to imagine soaking your scalp in anything that’s not a chemical, unless you take extreme poetic license and cleanse your hair with daydreams or something.

The problem with statements like this is that all matter – stuff, substances, material – whatever you’d like to call it – is composed of one or more chemicals.

Now, you may label me a simpleton, but I get a rush of endorphins when I read this sort of thing. You can blame Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Deborah Blum for instigating my euphoria with her article in last Sunday’s LA Times entitled “‘Chemical-free’ Nonsense.”  Blum reiterates that chemicals are everywhere, and she coaxed a few tickles out of me with her mention of “chemical-free” chemistry sets and cigarettes. But personal enjoyment aside, what’s really important to me is her clarification of an almost hopelessly muddled issue:

when people advertise chemical-free…they don’t really mean it. They mean a product free — so far as they know — of industrial or synthetic chemical compounds.

My personal belief is that good things very rarely happen when people say what they don’t really mean. So many stupid arguments begin because both sides fail to define terms. Sometimes, both sides agree and they can’t even see it because they haven’t taken the time to specify what they are really talking about. This confusion can be irritating at best, and downright dangerous at worst. Blum points out the danger:

And let’s not fool ourselves either into thinking that “chemical-free” is just a harmless little slogan. This simple-minded equating of “chemical” with “evil” is an invitation to chemophobia. We read it a lot more often than we read up on the actual ingredients of the things we consume, and daily exposure can muddy our understanding of legitimate risks. (emphasis mine)

Herein lies the connection to “all natural.” Words like “chemical” and “natural” have become lucrative clichés, but they don’t really mean anything. If we read an ingredient label, we’d find out that an all-natural Naked Juice smoothie has more sugar and calories than a Starbuck’s Frappuccino. Or that some natural vegetable chips have more SALT than they do VEGETABLES. Or that all-natural ice cream is still ICE CREAM. The health-conscious hopefuls spy “natural” on the label, and their duty is done. Proceed to the cashier with a clear conscience.

Phrases like “all-natural” and “chemical-free” really are “nonsense” in the truest sense of the word. They require no sense. Nevermind the nuances of an ingredient label–when a few simple slogans tell you all you need to know, why waste your time?

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