The Spirit of the Term Natural

In searching for a recipe last night while making my grocery list for the week, I came upon the following definition in one of my favorite cookbooks, Super Natural Cooking. Heidi Swanson, the author and blogger over at, does such a great job bringing the essence of healthy cooking to life. I really enjoy the book, coming back to it time and time again, and also love her approach to eating well. Thought I would share this great explanation of the term "natural" with you. The word natural is one of the most abused terms in food marketing. Consumers will pay up to 30 percent more for products labeled “natural,” even though there are no regulations concerning which products (outside of meat and poultry) can be labeled as such. As a result, you can end up with groceries in your cart that you think are healthful, but are actually laden with high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. The term natural is open to interpretation, but here is what it means to me: Natural ingredients are whole – straight from the plant or animal – or they are made from whole ingredients, with as little processing and as few added flavorings, stabilizers, and preservatives as possible, this keeping nutrients and original flavors intact; for example, tomatoes crushed into tomato sauce, cream paddled into butter, olives pressed into olive oil, or what berries ground into flour. For me, focusing on natural ingredients also means avoiding genetically modified and chemically fertilized crops, as well as dairy products that come from cows treated with growth hormones. Take these natural foods with their super-nutritional profiles, their unique and complex flavors, and their lighter impact on the environment and you have an expansive and exciting realm to explore - Super Natural Cooking. Many make the argument that our bodies find it easier to utilize the whole foods our species has been consuming for thousands of years. The body doesn’t even recognize as food some of the modern highly processed products and convenience foods that have been introduced into the food supply in the last sixty years. And worse, some of these new “foods” are actually highly damaging, trans fats being an excellent case in point. Volumes have been written about this, as well as the way many of the diseases we are seeing in epidemic proportions (diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers) were nearly nonexistent in many cultures subsisting on a diet of local, all-natural foods – even when their primary fat was a saturated fat, like that found in coconut oil. It wasn’t until a refined Western diet was adopted by these cultures that incidents of these (now common) diseases spiked. This can be a complicated realm to navigate, and during those times when my brain goes to mush browsing the fourteen different flours in front of me, or I’m confused by a new oil that just hit the market, I’ve found that I can typically figure out what fits into my definition of a natural ingredient by asking myself two questions: 1. If pressed, could I make this in my own kitchen? 2. And, can I explain how this is made to an eight-year old? I am looking for two yes answers here. Reprinted with permission from Super Natural Cooking: Five Ways to Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients Into Your Cooking by Heidi Swanson. Copyright © 2007. Published by Celestial Arts. Photo credit: Heidi Swanson
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