Everyday Lies

Natural health service

Theodore Dalrymple on the naturalness of what we eat

Such is the price of travelling first-class on British railways that few people do so other than at public or shareholders’ expense. But recently I did so and was awarded a sandwich and a packet of crisps in recompense. On the packet of crisps were prominently printed the words “naturally delicious”. Whenever any prepared food claims some kind of derivation from nature, I look at the ingredients. In this case they were comparatively few and comparatively natural:

Potatoes, sunflower oil, oak smoked sugar, sea salt, sugar, garlic powder, rice flour, onion powder, cumin, tomato powder, chilli, Scotch bonnet chilli, oak smoked salt, yeast extract powder, citric acid, paprika extract.

My naturopathic turmeric capsules are somewhat less natural: 

Powder and extract of turmeric, calcium phosphate, silicon dioxide, magnesium stearate, black pepper extract, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose. 

As for my toothpaste, which has a brand-name suggestive of mountain streams, it contains:

Sorbitol, hydrated silica, glycerine, pentasodium triphosphate, polyethylineglycol-6, sodium laurel sulphate, alumina, xanthine gum, cocamidolpropyl betaine, titanium dioxide, Chondrus crispus, sodium fluoride, sodium sacharin, sodium hydroxide, limonene, 6-Chloro-2-(6-chloro-4-methyl-3-oxobenzo[b]thien-2(3H)-ylidene)-4-methylbenzo[b]thiophene-3(2H)-one, polychloro copper phthalocyanine and phthalo blue. 

Now I am sure that many chemicals are to be found in mountain streams, for everything, including dead sheep, is made of chemicals, and there is a sense in which everything that exists is natural. The word natural is therefore ambiguous, but when applied to, or implied of, the products that we consume, we generally take it to mean containing naturally-occurring ingredients that have not been subject to too much alteration by industrial processes.

It may be, of course, that nature is not as benign as we like to imagine (there are many naturally-occurring carcinogens, for example) but that is not the point: we are often encouraged to think that a product is natural in the above sense, as if peasants somewhere or other had been out picking this year’s crop of titanium dioxide.

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