We've all seen the claims on various foods that they are "all natural," implying that these foods are close to their original format and therefore are, in some way, better for us. But in an intriguing essay titled In Praise of Artificial Food, science and technology historian Rachel Laudan makes the point that it was the rise of food technology which made the typically unpalatable, and less than easily digestible, all-natural foods fit for human consumption.
Ms Laudan points out, for example, that meat was hard to obtain and not very tender; greens were calorically dilute; grains were tiny and hard to digest; nuts were bitter or oily; and roots tended to be poisonous. And don't even think about fruits available year-round! All-natural foods, anyone??
Of course our foods are not this way any longer and that is thanks to the rise of food technology and agricultural expertise, developed over the course of millennia. We learned to chop, grind, ferment and soak our raw materials, and most important, we learned to cook them.
Cooking makes foods more palatable, easier to eat in many cases, and can even increase their nutritive value not to mention killing microorganisms like E. coli and Salmonella. Other forms of food preservation such as salting, canning and freezing followed, as did the use of chemical preservatives such as BHA and BHT. And fortification of some foods allowed populations to avoid deficiency diseases adding iodine to salt prevented goiters in adults and mental deficiencies in infants.
In spite of these myriad benefits from food processing and agricultural progress, some see only negatives, pointing the finger, Ms. Laudan says, at increases in the occurrence of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes and trying to link them to science giving us abundant food.
And activists direct people to turn away from modern food technologies exhorting them to eat organic or natural (whatever "natural" means). Many are convinced, even though these less-processed foods can be surprisingly more expensive and have no evidence of benefit.
In the United Kingdom, for example, a recent survey found that, on average, consumers paid nearly 90 percent more for organic products, even though half of the shoppers felt the foods were overpriced. Organic marketing groups and their believers in the customer base say that this premium stems from the fact that the standards of animal welfare make food more expensive, but it's hard to see why that makes vegetable foods so much more dear.
Perhaps it's time for the psychologists to weigh in and explain why consumers, when it comes to food purchases, are so willing to act against their own best interests.