Is Anyone Else Tired of Meaningless Terms in Food?

Heather says:

As I peruse discussions on nutrition and “real food” there are two terms I’m struck with again and again “chemicals” and “natural.” Without context neither mean much of anything when it comes to food.

NaCl, C12H22O11, H2O <— Ooh scary look chemicals! Those are the chemical formulas for table salt, sugar, and water. Chemical reactions are necessary for life. Without them we couldn’t undergo respiration (oxidative metabolism) and transform the food we eat into energy. Don’t be alarmed, but there are chemical reactions happening in your body as you read this.

Natural is quite possibly even more annoying when used too broadly. Rattle snakes, black widows, oleanders, mistletoe, nightshade, hemlock, all of these things are perfectly natural and dangerous. Women used to save up apple seeds to eat. Why? It made them pale, at the time this was an attractive feature. It was being achieved through arsenic poisoning and arsenic is naturally present in the seeds of apples.

The term natural means nothing.

I was venting my frustration on Twitter and my friend Dave Slusher remarked that civilization formed because most of nature will kill us. Sitting in a somewhat comfortable chair, locked in an air-conditioned room, enjoying coffee, and some time on my computer, I find that comment succinct and profound.

If I find the terms meaningless and am not scared of the word chemicals, why do I continually drag out my soapbox on overly processed foods?

Nutrition isn’t simple.

If it were I don’t think we’d be facing all of the health problems we are today. Up until fairly recent history, overweight was sexy. Why? Only the rich could afford enough food to become overweight, it was as attractive as money and power because it took those two to get that way.

In our country. In this day. Over-processed food is killing us, slowly and painfully through diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.

Fat, salt, and sugar taste amazing and we evolved with a taste for these things. When food wasn’t abundant these urges for these tastes lead us to foods that would sustain us. Now these things are put into food in specific ways to make them even more desirable, despite their having little nutritional value.

But Heather, cooking is processing food.

When you slow cook a pot roast, you’re processing the food into a new form. That’s true, I am. When I say a food is over-processed, it is a subjective term. I mean that the food in question has been altered so much that it satisfies our cravings but doesn’t fulfill our needs. MSG (yep, back to the monosodium glutamate discussion) and high fructose corn syrup are cheap and easy ways to stimulate our palates and we train our tastes to expect that level of excitement. Foods without these items can taste bland by comparison, even though they may carry much more nutritional value.

When you cook your own food you have control over what is put into that food and in what quantities. This by itself doesn’t magically make food healthy, but it is a start and it gives a consumer a cost-effective way of improving their diet.

In my menu planning primer I do recommend starting out just by eating at home, even if that means Hamburger Helper and Taco Kits. People don’t go from the couch to running a marathon overnight and non-cooks don’t go from take out to gourmet overnight either. I write this site to meet people wherever they are in their cooking journey and I want to do so without sounding judgmental.


  1. ChasAnon on June 29, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Love this blog, love this post and totally agree with the sentiment.

    I do have one little issue though – i have diabetes. Type I or Juvenile Diabetes is an autoimmune disease that is never caused by anything a person eats (or doesnt eat) . Everyday I encounter people who tell me that having diabetes is my fault for 'eating too much sugar'. This is simply not true.

    Again – i totally agree with your post but couldn't resist the urge to clarify this fact, because the general public's misinformation on this topic is something that causes me discrimination / humiliation/ and general frustration everyday.

    • HeatherSolos on June 29, 2010 at 7:30 pm

      You raise a great point, I simply omitted the term Type 2. I apologize for that. I'll edit it in. You're right Type 1 is very different.

  2. Marybeth @ BGB on June 29, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    This reminded me of a bit of dialogue from an excellent play, "Proof":
    Claire: Whatever. It's something that's good for your hair.
    Catherine: Like what? A chemical?
    Claire: No. It's organic.
    Catherine: It can be organic and still be a chemical.
    Claire: I don't know what it is.
    Catherine: Haven't you ever heard of organic chemistry?

    I use those lines a lot when people start talking about how bad chemicals are and how great organic stuff is!

  3. tinkerschnitzel on June 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Have you seen the new commercials for high fructose corn syrup? Makes me want to scream. It's not the same as sugar! The body processes it differently, and my experiment over Lent a few years ago proved it.

    I've just gotten to the point where I try to buy foods that are as close to their original state as possible. I'm moving on from canned veggies to frozen ones if I can't buy them fresh. My bread? Nature's own. No HFCS or preservatives, and if I can get it sugar free, all the better!

    • @JayMonster on June 29, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      OMG… I almost lost my mind when I first saw that commercial. All the studies coming out and they have the audacity to try and defend it?? To a certain extent, I understand they used HFCS because sugar prices in this US are (or were) held artificially high to help farmers, but to try and claim it to be "the same thing" is just nuts!!

      It also blows my mind at how many products use it now. I mean in soda where there is a lot (entirely too much but that is a different rant) of sugar, I can see the savings in using HFCS (I don't agree, but I can understand)… but in other products with much less sugar that didn't switch over immediately are doing so now, and it has made shopping so much harder now that we have eliminated HFCS (as much as possible), and I will happily continue to pay more for products that use no HFCS.

      For those that haven't see it here is the commericial that tinkerschnitzel is referring to:

  4. christopher575 on June 28, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I can't agree more with the last paragraph. I'm starting to become on ok cook, but I certainly didn't get that way quickly. People need to understand that it isn't easy, it's not always cheap, but the benefits to cooking at home are worth it.

  5. @stark23x on June 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    I swear if my family has to hear my "HFCS IS EVIL" speech one more time they are going to drown me in it but dammit, it is. It is engineered to play on the worst aspects of taste/rewards/brain chemistry. They did it on purpose and the government gladly let them, and they know this crap acts more like a poison and less like a sugar in the human body.

    Okay…breathe, Jim…calm down…I don't crusade much about food. I eat crap (in moderation now, as opposed to the old days) and I don't believe that everyone who sells junk food is out to kill me. But HFCS is evil and the science (so far) is backing me up.

    As for useless terms? When I found out that the food lobby got the FDA to approve forms of MSG to be listed as "other natural ingredients" that's when I stopped believing *anything* the package says. Now if I have a question while reading a label, out comes the Droid and I start typing ingredients into Google. I've stood in one place in the store for ten minutes trying to decipher what the hell was in the bread I was holding.

  6. @notdiyheather on June 28, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Excellent rant, Heather! I definitely season my food more now that I cook with less processed food. I love, love, love fresh herbs and am planning to expand my herb garden so I can use more in my cooking. Learning cook with more herbs is something I've wanted to do anyway, and this has been the push to do just that.

  7. @JayMonster on June 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    It is no accident that these terms became "confusing" and intermingled. It was done intentionally to help those that are trying to conceal certain facts to accomplish it and sound like something they are not.

    "All Natural Ingredients" was used at one time to explain that that there were not "man made chemicals" (shortened later to "chemicals"), or preservatives (remember when that was the only thing you had to really worry about?).

    It was easy when things fell into 2 categories… Natural (sugar) or Chemicals (Saccharin). But then came the line blurring choices like "High Fructose Corn Syrup" which while "technically" an "All Natural Product" is not by any stretch of the imagination, what people expect, but the marketing types love to live by the technicality and the "stretching" of the facts to fit their needs.

    Personally I felt burned by this when my daughter was little, and we had been buying Apple Juice, Orange Juice, etc for her lunches. But she came home from daycare one day asking for the Capri Sun juices that "all her friends" were drinking. We looked at it… saw that it said "all natural" and agreed. One day, I happed to be sitting on my deck, and after my daughter handed me her empty juice "bag" and went about playing, for some unknown reason I started reading the ingredients. Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Pear Juice Concentrate, Apple Juice Concentrate. Apple Juice was the 4th product in an "All Natural Apple Juice" drink.

    I don't think it is so much that the terms themselves are useless, so much as they have been bastardized and twisted to a point that they are no longer recognizable. What I think is really the take away from this is not so much that the terms are useless, but as always, to know what you are buying and look past the splashy "big print" and read the details. Caveat Emptor applies more today than it ever has.

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