It will probably come as no surprise that many Americans prefer “natural” to “artificial” when it comes to food and medicine. Even when the two are chemically identical and show no difference in their effectiveness or safety rating, most people in the U.S. show preference for the natural product.
The myth that natural is better is promoted heavily within many different industries, including health, fitness and beauty. Top-notch science researcher Paul Rozin has conducted research that investigates the preference for natural; he shares some thoughts with us.
Q: Why do the majority of people prefer natural to artificial, even when they are informed that they are chemically identical, and do not differ with respect to influence on health and effectiveness?
A: Because natural is treated as a basic good thing, not subject to evidence, somewhat like belief in God for those who believe in God.
Q: Why do you think the preference for natural products is stronger for food than it is for medicine? Does this preference appear in cultures other than the American culture?
A: One possible reason is that medicines are for treating things where nature or human intervention has gone awry. For Americans, the distinction between medicine and food is vanishing. We know natural is preferred in U.S. and Western European nations, but there is little data from other parts of the world, especially from traditional cultures.
Q: Why is organic food so popular? Should we prefer organic over non-organic foods?
A: Organic food is defined by the U.S. government (unlike natural) with specified growing/preparation conditions. Overall, there is no evidence that organic foods are tastier or healthier than processed foods. It depends on the case.
Q: Humans have an innate dislike for bitter tastes. This partly explains why children generally show an aversion to vegetables. How can we combat this natural tendency and increase children’s liking of vegetables?
A: Many vegetables, like string beans, are not bitter. The problem is likely that they have neither a sweet taste nor fatty textures. Fruits are sweet.
Q: What are your current research interests? Are there any future projects you would like to mention?
A: That’s about it. We are studying French vs. Americans in terms of the food-medicine distinction, which is much sharper for French.
More on Our Preference for “Natural” Foods and Medicines
The word “natural” is generally associated with good things, as noted earlier.
According to Rozin et al. (2004), “Instrumental reasons for this preference refer to specific advantages of natural entities: They are often thought to be healthier, more appealing to the senses, or kinder to the environment than entities that are not natural. In addition, our work suggests a very important role for ideational factors; that is, the natural is preferred just because it is inherently better—more moral, more aesthetic, or simply ‘‘right.’’ The great majority of our respondents prefer a natural to the corresponding commercial product. This preference does not shift to indifference for most individuals even when we specify that the natural and commercial products are chemically identical.” (Rozin et al., 2004)
Research has found that the preference for natural is stronger for foods than for medicines. Rozin et al. (2004) inferred that a large part of the motivation to prefer natural is moral or aesthetic as opposed to concern with its healthiness or effectiveness.
What Is “Natural?”
In an effort to find out what people think of when they think “natural,” Rozin (2005) investigated two sample groups–American college students and adults in a Philadelphia jury pool. Participants rated the naturalness of a variety of ‘‘natural’’ entities–before and after they were transformed by operations such as freezing, adding or removing components, mixing with other natural or unnatural entities, domestication, and genetic engineering.
The results supported four hypotheses:
- The notion of “contagion” accounts for much of the perceived reduction in naturalness when natural products come into contact with unnatural entities.
- Chemical transformations are thought to reduce naturalness much more than physical transformations do.
- The history of an entity’s processing is more important in assessing its naturalness than is the nature of the entity’s contents.
- Mixing like natural entities (e.g., water from different sources) does not markedly reduce the perception of the naturalness of the end product.
According to the sample groups, the biggest decrease in naturalness is due to the genetic modification of organisms. Surprisingly, domestication–a human-driven activity that drastically changes genotype and phenotype–was considered less damaging to naturalness than genetic modification.
The Myth that All-Natural is Better
The belief that an all-natural product or entity is necessarily safer or more beneficial to health is not supported by evidence.
Natural chemicals contained in organically grown coffee, pepper, mushrooms, apples, celery, potatoes, nutmeg and carrots present a greater risk of cancer in people than DDT, DDE, or Alar, three pesticides that are banned in the U.S. and many other countries (Silver, 2006).
Aectaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzo (a) pyrene, benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, 1,2,5,6-dibenz (a) anthracene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, furan, furfural, hydroquinone, d-limonene, 4-methylcatechol, styrene, toluene–these are natural carcinogenic and DNA–damaging chemicals present in a cup of certified organic coffee. (Gold et al., 1992)
Would you be surprised to learn that the world’s most dangerous toxins are all natural? They include ricin, abrin, botulinum, and strychnine—highly evolved chemical weapons used by organisms for self-defense and territorial expansion. Indeed, every plant and microbe carries a variety of mostly uncharacterized, more or less toxic attack chemicals, and synthetic chemicals are no more likely to be toxic than natural ones. (Silver, 2006)
In the fall of 2006, 204 Americans became seriously ill after eating freshly packaged spinach contaminated with a toxic bacteria found “naturally” in cow and pig manure. Ironically, the company that grew the tainted spinach was named Natural Selection Foods. (Silver, 2007)
Evidence does not support the claim that natural is necessarily safer, better or more nutritious. When people are asked why they prefer natural products, their reasoning is often inconsistent and ambiguous. Even when they are told that the chemical structures are identical, and do not differ in respect to influence on health and effectiveness they still prefer the natural choice. Why is this?
Perhaps Rozin has it right:
Because natural is treated as a basic good thing, not subject to evidence, somewhat like belief in God for those who believe in God.
Gold LS, Slone TH, Stern BR, Manley NB, & Ames BN (1992). Rodent Carcinogens: Setting Priorities. Science 258, 261-265.
Hale, J. (2009). Organic Food: The Real Story. Retrieved on March 12, 2011 from: http://www.maxcondition.com/page.php?148
Rozin, P., Spranca, M., Krieger, Z., Neuhaus, R., Surillo, D., Swerdlin, A., & Wood, K. (2004). Natural preference: Instrumental and ideational/moral motivations, and the contrast between foods and
medicines. Appetite, 43, 147–154.
Rozin, P. (2005). The Meaning of Natural: Process more important than content. American Psychological Society, 16 (8), 652-658.
Silver, L.M. (2006) Challenging Nature. Harper Collins.
Silver, L.M. (2006). The Environment’s Best Friend: GM or Organic? Update Magazine May / June.
Silver, L.M. (2007). Why Challenge Nature. Retrieved on March 12, 2011 from: http://www.science20.com/challenging_nature/why_challenge_nature