Is food’s naturalness conceptually connected to its healthiness? Answering the question requires spelling out the following: (1) What is meant by the healthiness of food? (2) What different conceptual meanings the term natural has in the context of food? (3) Are some of those meanings connected to the healthiness of food? In this paper the healthiness of food is understood narrowly as food’s accordance with nutritional needs of its eater. The connection of healthiness to the following five food-related senses of the term “natural’’ is analyzed: naturalness as nutritive suitability, naturalness as moderate need satisfaction, naturalness as lack of human influence, naturalness as authenticity, and naturalness as familiarity. It is concluded that some very common current uses of the term “natural,” such as naturalness as lack of human influence, are not conceptually connected to the healthiness of food. Nevertheless, the first two senses of naturalness are strongly conceptually connected to healthiness in the food context and the last one may be indirectly related to it. Thus, desire for natural food is not necessarily mistaken and misguided.
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However, there are exceptions such as some modern baby milk substitutes that satisfy all nutritional needs of a newborn baby (and that are food products in the sense of being eatable outcomes of human labor).
In practice, there is usually no limit or criterion to define the reference group (i.e., the group of people that the concept of healthy food refers to) and, thus, the healthiness of food also is relational to choices made regarding it (for further discussion see for example Boorse 1977; Döring et al. 2012).
Naturalness as moderate need satisfaction as described here leaves open the status of those actions that neither contribute to need satisfaction nor work against it. Should those actions be considered natural, unnatural, or falling outside the scope of naturalness as moderate need satisfaction? Or should all human actions—even such as car driving or movie watching—be seen at least indirectly to work for or against the agent’s needs?
I thank one of the anonymous referees for pointing this out for me.
For further discussion on the distinction between absolute and relative senses of naturalness see Siipi (2008).
From the point of view of marketing, many naturalness claims in food advertisements and labels are semantically empty in the sense of lacking any particular meaning. Similarly to the famous slogan “Coca-Cola is it,” they are not meant to refer to any particular property or quality of the product. Rather they merely carry a positive connotation to which consumers are free to associate their own values and desires regarding the product. Thus, to a great extent the question regarding possible meanings of naturalness claims in food advertisements and labels concerns the meanings consumers may attach to them.
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I want to thank Peter Sandøe and anonymous referees for their useful comments on the earlier versions of this paper, Susanne Uusitalo for correcting my English, and Academy of Finland for the financial support.
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Siipi, H. Is Natural Food Healthy?. J Agric Environ Ethics 26, 797–812 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-012-9406-y
- Conceptual analysis