Ben and Jerry's aren't the only ones guilty of using the vague word "natural." Maybe because it means everything—and nothing—at the same time.
Holy god, do I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I’m addicted to Mint Chocolate Cookie. I’m also a fan of Milk and Cookies and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. Basically, my four food groups are Ben, Jerry, ice cream, and cookies.
My lust for it isn’t diminished at all by the recent news that Ben and Jerry's will be removing the label “all natural” from their ice cream because it includes some factory-made products. Hell, I like the stuff so much that if you told me it was made from toxic sludge and orphans, I’d be cool with it. But it does raise an interesting issue: What do “all-natural” or “natural” even mean on a food label or elsewhere? Spoiler alert: absolutely nothing. In any context, “natural” is so vague, all-encompassing, and subjective that it is pretty much meaningless.
Naturally, our giant friend the Oxford English Dictionary has dozens of meanings and sub-meanings for “natural” that have evolved over the years. The most important one for our purposes is “Involving no artificial or man-made ingredients, chemicals, etc.; ecological, organic; spec. (of food and drink) containing no artificial colourings, flavourings, or preservatives.” That sense was first found in 1802 in a reference to “Natural Sherry.” The OED doesn’t list “all-natural,” and I respect them for that: “all” is a meaningless add-on to “natural,” adding three letters of hooey and nothing more. You might as well go with “maxi-natural,” ultra-natural,” or “supernatural”—well, maybe not supernatural, unless your food is endorsed by Christine O’Donnell.
Much as the OED dominates my word-loving life, I have to admit the FDA has more influence on what goes into my piehole. Unfortunately, the FDA is about as rigorous as a stoner eating a pint of ice cream when it comes to policing what “natural” means. It provides no clear guidance or enforcement on “natural” as a label. It’s as reliable a product description as “delicious,” “gourmet,” “handcooked,” “fresh,” “healthy,” and—as Jennifer LaRue Huget points out—“Vermont’s best.”
In fact, the government can take none of the credit for Ben and Jerry backing off “all natural”—the change was made because of pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Executive Director of that group, Michael F. Jacobson, discussed the issue recently, emphasizing that even though “Ben and Jerry's kept on passing off ingredients like anhydrous dextrose and maltodextrin as gifts from nature,” that didn’t mean they were dangerous or unhealthy. He said: “The real fuss over ‘all natural’ isn't about nutrition, or food safety, it's about money. It's one of the catch phrases that food marketers love because it allows products thusly labeled to sell better or fetch a slightly higher price. And that's why this was a particular problem for Ben NS Jerry's. It's a company that loves wearing its hippie halo.” That halo doesn’t fit so well when your products are packaged with fibs. But “natural” has been a slippery word for centuries; fibbing is in this word’s DNA.
We’ve been talking about natural childbirth since 1933, and natural highs since the drug-soaked year of 1971. “Natural fool” and “natural idiot” are terms for people with mental disabilities dating back to the 1400s, and “natural number”—used since at least 1763—distinguishes good, honest, All-American numbers like 3 and 675 from sneaky negative numbers like -65. The most perfect example of how unwelcome “natural” can be is “natural causes”—an explanation that has referred to death since the 1800s. I would need 10 columns to thoroughly discuss its other compounds, including natural day, cement, gas, immunity, liberty, park, price, rate of unemployment, resources, and so forth. As you can see, “natural” goes all over, under, and outside the map. It’s a mess.
Every year, Lake Superior State University puts out a list of “Banished Words” that they, and probably a lot of other people, would like to throw out of the language. Mainly, their lists consist of political buzzwords (“transparency,” “czar,” “shovel-ready”) and other trendy lingo (“tweet,” “bromance,” “sexting”). Maybe this group or some other cabal of peevologists should stop shaking sticks at minor offenders and aim the heavy artillery at a big target: “natural”—a word that deserves to be sent on a one-way journey out of our mouths and dictionaries.
Such banishment is unnatural and impossible, sure, but I can dream, can’t I? Now pass the ice cream, please.