Natural Foods

views updated May 11 2018


NATURAL FOODS. The concept of natural foods is obscure from many perspectives. Although international literature offers no clear definition, the term is used in food surveys, in the food industry, in the marketing of foods, and in modern discourses surrounding food choice. "Natural" is defined as 'produced by nature, that is, not produced artificially' in Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary. Since all food can be said to be produced by nature, the term "natural foods" becomes even more unclear unless one considers the meaning Felipe Fernández-Armesto has proposed: "the oyster is eaten uncooked and unkilled. It is the nearest thing we have to 'natural' foodthe only dish which deserves to be called 'au naturel' without irony" (p. 2).

If the concept of natural foods originates from the French phrase au naturel, that is, eating something uncooked and alive, it would relate first to modes of processing. An "unkilled" food like the oyster is a food uncooked and is, by that definition, a food that has not been altered by human hand. Thus natural foods are foods not deliberately altered in the course of production and processing. Asked in a study how they perceived naturalness in relation to food production, respondents in England and Denmark said they perceived organic food and free-range livestock products as the most natural foods and genetically modified foods as the most unnatural foods (Von Alvensleben).

Furthermore, natural foods can be interpreted in terms of connections to nostalgic rural life (Lupton). Yet regional foods, products that are not imported from exotic, faraway lands and not distributed in ways injurious to the environment are also representations of natural foods. Moreover, the concept of natural foods is related more to some groups in society than to others. Some associate natural foods with specific food choice ideologies, such as vegetarianism, and thus exclude certain animal products while including plants, cereals, fruits, and berries, preferably produced in an organic or ecological way (Lindeman and Sirelius).

The marketing strategies for natural foods may be understood on two levels. First: natural foods are considered unprocessed foods in the sense that they are not influenced by industry for mass production. Second: natural foods are seen as originating in the vegetable kingdom. Both dimensions are marketed as healthy for people and the environment.

Contradictions in Health and Purity

The marketing of natural foods actually refers to health issues. Natural foods are projected as guaranteeing a long, healthy life since they are portrayed as foods that can prevent diseases and aging. In this concept lies the belief that natural foods are pure and free from harmful and unwholesome components. Pure food is perceived as natural, simple, unspoiled, and earthy, but at the same time it is expected to be germ-free, biologically cleansed, and scientifically aseptic (Mintz).

Natural foods in fact can include more harmful and naturally occurring toxic substances than highly processed food. The latter, thanks to modern developments in biotechnology, (i.e., genetic manipulation) can be more "healthy" and can more effectively prevent diseases than the so-called natural foods (Coveney and Santich). Advances in biotechnology have produced foods that are much safer from a hygienic perspective with the same tastes, appearances, textures, and colors as foods produced in the conventional way. This is the ultimate goal for the modern food industry, and these are the foods modern consumers actually demand and look for even though they are not always aware of it.

Quality Aspects of Natural Food

The concept of natural foods is closely related to quality aspects of food. Adulteration of food has been evident since the growth of towns and the development of food distribution in medieval Europe. Adulteration became more prevalent in the late nineteenth century, a period also characterized by the food scientists' obsession with purity (Tannahill). This obsession was mainly a reaction to the development of the food industry and the loss of control over local food production, but it can also be linked to the development of food science per se. New scientific methods enabled scientists to measure and detect impurities in food. Thus the quality aspects of food were seen under the microscope, that is, scientists could actually see with their own eyes the bacteria, microorganisms, and chemical residues in the food; therefore, food was determined chemically clean or not. However, as Sidney W. Mintz emphasizes, this state is not the same as a natural one. Nature is not chemically clean.

At the same time a new genre of books with advice and guidelines on how to shop for safe, unaltered foods was published widely in Europe. The consumers, mostly women, were told what foods they should be suspicious of, what foods to avoid, how to detect adulterations in food, and so on. In these books and in the general debate in the newspapers, the development of food industries and fast-growing global trade was much criticized. Foods produced in the consumer's own country and sold by local, well-known salespeople were recommended (Fjellström). The debate continued in the twenty-first century within the European Union (EU) despite the fact that most states in the EU have effective measures to control quality in food production and distribution. Consumers in Europe and the United States fear unnatural foods produced outside national and regional borders.

The Ideology about Nature and Food

The vision of the foods eaten by humankind in prehistory is one of natural and healthy foods from a nutritional point of view (Jenkens et al.). This diet is perceived as plant-based; high in vegetable protein, dietary fiber, and antioxidants; and low in saturated fat. It is considered the best alternative for modern people forced to eat the food of the supermarket, which is characterized as bottled, canned, refined, preserved, and frozen.

The ideology and attitudes toward the wild and natural landscape on the one hand and the domesticated and cultivated landscape on the other shifted back and forth throughout the first millennium B.C.E. (Montanari). For example, in Greek and the Roman cultures the untilled, uncultivated landscape or nature was seen as something negative, the opposite of the civilized and human world. Only unfortunate people obtained food in wild nature. Although the vegetarian diet, as opposed to the animal one, appealed more to both the Greeks and the Romans, it had to derive from land cultivated by people. During the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. in Europe the preference for nature and for the wild landscape as a source of a daily food supply became more dominant among the lay nobility, while domestically produced foods were preferred by groups within the church and in monasteries. In the early part of the second millennium C.E., the dominant ideas supported an effective medieval agricultural system. Foods obtained from the wild or naturally grown were regarded as unsuitable for human consumption (Montanari).

In eighteenth-century Scotland the physician George Cheney won a reputation for his ideas on health and illness. Natural foods were once again in favor. Cheney saw natural foods as those that remained unaltered by strange preparation techniques and ingredients, although he was not a vegetarian (Beardsworth and Keil). The development of organicism in mid-twentieth-century England preceded the ideology of natural foods (Matless). Important symbols within this movement were the earth and the soil. Values such as nature and wholeness were seen as the right kind of values for the survival of humankind, just as production methods and geographies of foods were emphasized as important for people's health. Organicists were critical of the global food production and distribution industries, thus their approach can be understood as a critique of modernity.

Natural Foods and a Critique of Modernity

The choice of natural foods could be interpreted in terms of Anthony Giddens's theories about people's calculations of risk elements in modern everyday life. Health issues, fear of diseases, and ultimately existential questions, such as the fear of death, are the underlying reasons that people began to examine what foods they could trust in a global society, where multinational food industries control food production and distribution and where experts have commandeered the knowledge of what is safe and healthy food. In his well-known culinary triangle Claude Lévi-Strauss emphasized that raw food was related to nature, while cooked food handled in vessels made by people had become culture. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the discourses surrounding food, especially so-called natural foods, involve new and different meanings and symbols. In some groups, particularly those who favor natural foods, nature and rural living are favored before culture and urban living (Lupton). Thus Lévi-Strauss's ideas about the the raw and cooked have changed place. Raw food rather than processed and cooked food is considered culture among some groups.

See also Green Revolution; Health Foods; Organic Agriculture; Organic Farming and Gardening; Organic Food.


Beardsworth, Alan, and Teresa Keil. Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society. London: Routledge, 1997.

Coveney, John, and Barbara Santich. "A Question of Balance: Nutrition, Health, and Gastronomy." Appetite 28 (1997): 267277.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Food: A History. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Fjellström, Christina. "Safe Food and Consumer Attitudes of Yesterday and Today." Paper presented at the Annual Swedish Food Industry Conference, Halmstad, September 2001.

Jenkens, David J. A., et al. "The Garden of Eden: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention." Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 9 (October 2000): S1S3.

Letarte, Anick, Laurette Dubé, and Viviane Troche. "Similarities and Differences in Affective and Cognitive Origins of Food Likings and Dislikes." Appetite 28 (1997): 115129.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Lindeman, Marjaana, and Minna Sirelius. "Food Choice Ideologies: The Modern Manifestations of Normative and Humanist Views of the World." Appetite 37 (2001): 175184.

Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body, and the Self. London: Sage, 1996.

Matless, David. "Bodies Made of Grass Made of Earth of Bodies: Organicism, Diet, and National Health in Mid-Twentieth-Century England." Journal of Historical Geography 27, no. 3 (2001): 355376.

Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursion into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Montanari, Massimo. The Culture of Food. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.

Von Alvensleben, Reimar. "Beliefs Associated with Food Production Methods." In Food, People, and Society: A European Perspective of Consumers' Food Choices, edited by Lynn J. Frewer, Einar Risvik, and Hendrik Schifferstein. Berlin: Springer, 2001.

Christina Maria Fjellström

Health Foods

views updated Jun 11 2018


HEALTH FOODS. The concept of "health food" is attributed to the 1830s Popular Health movement whose founders included Sylvester Graham, father of graham crackers. Reacting against professional medicine, the movement emphasized temperate living, lay knowledge and health care, and health foods as part of the broader feminist and class struggle. A simple vegetarian diet, including whole wheat, and exercise were promoted for physiological and spiritual reform to a more natural, uncomplicated life. Meat, white flour, and alcohol were among the stimulating sinful foods.

John H. Kellogg and his brother Will were the first to become millionaires from "food faddism" (Herbert and Barrett, 1981, p. 87). The Seventh-Day Adventists founded a religious colony and sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, where Kellogg's clients "detoxified" via enemas and high-fiber diets, including cornflakes. By 1899, the Kellogg cereal company's cornflakes competed with Post Grape-Nuts, the latter a supposed cure for appendicitis, malaria, consumption, and loose teeth. Charles W. Post was a former Kellogg patient. Kellogg and the Post Division of General Foods remain giant cereal manufacturers.

While scientists quantified protein, carbohydrate, fat, and later the vitamin and mineral composition of food in the late 1800s and early 1900s, agriculture and industry augmented production. Public health sanitation and vaccinations minimized infections, and the increased stable food supply fed a growing population more fit to work the factories, farms, and military. As home economists taught the nutritional food groups recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), profiteers promoted grander elixirs via speeches, newspapers, books, magazines, and doctors, dentists, and chiropractors with dubious degrees.

Beginning in 1906, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricted health claims on food and drug packaging, but marketers could nevertheless exercise free speech by offering information in books, magazines, and brochures. Prevention and Let's Live magazines began publication in 1950 and 1933, respectively; the latter was initially called California Health News. They promoted vitamins, food preparation, and exercise and warned of pollution dangers. In the era of World War II victory gardens, Rodale Press began publication of Organic Gardening and Farming in 1942; this later became Organic Gardening and then simply OG. In 1980, Rodale Press grossed $80 million with 2.4 million Prevention and one million Organic Gardening and Farming subscribers (Herbert and Barrett, 1981, p. 99). Amway, Shaklee, and Neo-Life used door-to-door sales to distribute high-priced vitamins with brochures and books; in 1980 these three companies grossed about $700 million from food supplements (Herbert and Barrett, 1981, p. 22).

Health Food and the Counterculture

The 1960s and 1970s counterculture youth questioned the political and economic values of capitalism and experimented with alternative lifestyles. University students created community gardens, cooperative grocery stores, health-food restaurants, buying clubs, and organic farms. Ecology and health food became "cool." Notions of balance were sought from formerly less acknowledged ecological studies and from Eastern or Native American philosophies. In the early 1900s, USDA staff had explored sustainable Far Eastern agricultural practices, but these foods and methods received little attention until organic farming became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Brown rice, wheat germ, honey, nuts, sprouts, and Eastern foods like yogurt, hummus, falafel, tofu, and stir-fried vegetables were considered healthy, and environmentally sound if they were produced locally and organically. Vegetarian diets, of the non-red meat, lacto-ovo, macrobiotic, and vegan varieties, were adopted to eat low on the food chain or to avoid killing animals. Sugar, white bread, and red meat were considered unhealthy.

The health-food business recognized a market in the counterculture. Adelle Davis, with books like Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit, promoted vitamins and natural foods to prevent psychological metabolic disorders as well as cancer. The Atkins Diet promised thinness through consumption of protein foods, fruits, and vegetables, but few carbohydrates. While exploring non-Western religions and cultures, youth tried ethnic foods, spices, herbs, and recreational drugs. While ethnic variety entered American cuisine, doctors bemoaned the fact that people were not seeking medical treatment but were using useless or harmful herbs and concoctions. Laypeople sought self-reliance over "the establishment" with traditional natural products to achieve holistic mental and physical health.

The professional certification of Registered Dietitian became required by many states in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973, the FDA required enriched or fortified foods to be labeled with ingredients and Recommended Daily Allowance values for protein and seven essential vitamins and minerals.

Small-Scale to Global Mass Marketing

By the 1990s, as the counterculture matured, health-food issues saw compromise such as more integration of nutrition and preventative medicine in medical practice, or scientific evaluation of physiological properties in food beyond macro-and micronutrients. International conservation-development projects found wide use of herbal medicines to the extent that the World Health Organization promoted traditional medicine to cut health-care costs. The U.S. National Institutes of Health researched herbal medicine claims. A recent Physicians' Desk Reference describes herbal uses and contraindications. FDA food label regulations gradually permitted scientifically tested nutrient content claims (for example, "low-fat," "high fiber"), structure/function claims (for example, calcium aids in the growth and maintenance of bones), and a few health claims (for example, calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis). In December 2000, the USDA defined national organic food standards to regulate health-food claims and to facilitate national and international trade. U.S. organic food sales increased from $178 million in 1980 to $1 billion in 1990 and $7.8 billion in 2000 (Mergentine, 1994, p. 164; Myers and Rorie, 2000).

Natural product sales (including whole foods, organics, supplements, and household products) grew from $1.9 billion in 1980, to $4.2 billion in 1990, and to $32 billion in 2000 (Spencer, 2001). Small cooperative health-food stores persisted, but large "one-stop" natural grocery stores opened in the 1980s and 1990s. Convenience attracted the "hippie" become "yuppie" professionals who retained health and environmental concerns but had little time to produce, obtain, or cook food. Mergers and acquisitions occurred as conventional food conglomerates bought out natural food product lines or whole companies. Regular chain grocery stores carried more organic foods besides conventional foods. The Internet provided both health-food magazine and retailer advertising as well as access to university and medical school websites. The Internet health-food market was initially profitable, but plateaued with delivery limited to nonperishables. Scientifically verified "functional foods" became popular, whether in regular meals, sports foods, or weight reduction. Consequently, antioxidants, fatty acids, phytoestrogens, flavinoids, pro-and prebiotics, are now promoted in a Functional Food Pyramid, mirroring the conventional USDA food pyramid adopted in 1992. Both nutrition education models acknowledge growing scientific evidence that fruits, vegetables, and grains are important to health, with lower emphasis on animal-derived food, compared to the Four Food Groups model used since 1958.

"Functional food," "designer food," and "nutraceutical" are used interchangeably. This is problematic in global trade regulation since food and drugs are compartmentalized differently in international regulatory agencies. Functional food is conventional food, but demonstrates physiological benefits and/or reduces the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions. A nutraceutical is a product produced from foods but sold in pill, powder, and other medicinal forms not generally associated with food and demonstrated to have physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease (Stephen, 1998, p. 404). The American Dietetic Association classifies all food as functional at some physiological level, but suggests that "functional food" includes unmodified food as well as modified food. While some sports enthusiasts or dieters favor modified processed foods with higher nutrient content, many Americans and Europeans buy organic foods because they worry about allergic reactions and environmental hazards caused by genetic modification.

See also Functional Foods; Kellogg, John Harvey; Natural Foods; Nutraceuticals; Organic Foods; Vegetarianism.


American Dietetic Association. "Functional FoodsPosition of ADA." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99 (1999): 12781285.

Belasco, Warren J. Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry, 19661988. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

Davis, Adelle. Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit. Newly Revised and Updated. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1970.

Dubisch, Jill. "You Are What You Eat: Religious Aspects of the Health Food Movement." In Nutritional Anthropology: Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition, edited by Alan H. Goodman, Darna L. Dufour, and Gretel H. Pelto. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 2000.

Functional Foods for Health. Functional Food Guide Pyramid. Southern Illinois University/CFAR/University of Illinois Functional Foods for Health Program, 2000.

Herbert, Victor, and Stephen Barrett. Vitamins and "Health" Foods: The Great American Hustle. Philadelphia: George F. Stickley, 1981.

Mergentine, Ken. "The USA Perspective." In Handbook of Organic Food Processing and Production, edited by Simon Wright. London: Blackie Academic and Professional, 1994.

Myers, Steve, and Somlynn Rorie. "Facts and Stats: The Year in Review." Organic & Natural News 12 (2000): Virgo Publishing, 2001.

Spencer, Marty Traynor. "Natural Product Sales Top $32 B." Natural Foods Merchandiser (June 2001). Available at

Stephen, A. M. "Regulatory Aspects of Functional Foods." In Functional Foods: Biochemical & Processing Aspects, edited by G. Mazza. Lancaster, Pa.: Technomic, 1998.

Whorton, J. C. "Historical Development of Vegetarianism." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59 (1994): 1103S1009S.

Sabrina H. B. HardenberghHea-Ran L. Ashraf

health foods

views updated May 21 2018

health foods The importance of food to good health is one of the oldest and most significant notions in human material culture. Obviously people must eat or they will die, but the concept of ‘health food’ carries with it moral, religious, and even political meanings that go far beyond mere nutrition. For most people just getting enough to eat can be a struggle. But for those living beyond the margin, the selection of what one ought to eat or to avoid to recover or to preserve health is profoundly revealing of cultural attitudes and of the relationship of the body to what enters it.

The biblical book of Leviticus offered a daunting array of dietary restrictions to the Jews, embedded among other laws they had to observe in order to keep their covenant with God. Much later commentary on the lists of forbidden foods notes, for example, that prohibition of pork was done for ‘good reason’, because pork would have carried an unusual amount of disease. Such logic does not, however, apply to the prohibition of rabbit, for instance, and we must look elsewhere for a better explanation of these enigmatic documents. Leviticus itself suggests an answer. After promising his people a land of milk and honey, God continued:
‘I have made a clear separation between you and the nations, and you shall make a clear separation between clean beasts and unclean beasts and between unclean and clean birds …You shall be holy to me, because I the Lord am holy’(Leviticus 20: 24–6).

If God's people obeyed his laws, which included eating certain foods and avoiding others, they would enjoy a life of plenty and would be holy before the Lord. If they polluted themselves, they would lose God's favour.

Many cultures throughout history have observed similar restrictions. Adam and Eve were told to avoid apples, which they did not. The Pythagoreans shunned beans. Hindus do not eat beef and Moslems avoid pork. History offers numerous examples of pious Roman Catholic women who claim to exist on the wine and bread of the Holy Sacrament alone. ‘Health food’, in this sense, implies certain dietary restrictions that affirm a person's place in the social order and assure them that they are doing something that will keep them from bodily or spiritual harm. The more positive approach — that certain foods actually are better for one than others — also has a long history.

The ancient Greek science of dietetics embraced not only what one ate but also one's physical activity and emotions. Each person's diet was individualized according to gender, class, age, and occupation. Healthy food was food that was peculiarly suited to one's unique constitution or complexion. Food was essential to keep the bodily fluids in balance and to maintain harmony with the world of nature. In the Greek system, which dominated medical philosophy in the West until the seventeenth century, the distinction between food and medicine was never clear. A disordered constitution, one affected by fever for instance, could be returned to balance with temperate foods that would have a moderating influence. The body would require a long time to return to normal, however, and this sort of medicine never dealt very well with acute conditions. By the seventeenth century, more radical treatments, often chemical, came into fashion and the gentle, gradual, and individualized diet fell out of favour.

A returning focus on food came when scientists began to study diseases that were caused by deficiency of nutriments, required in tiny amounts, that came to be called vitamins. Scurvy, which was revealed as a problem by long ocean voyages, was identified and treated by eighteenth-century naval physicians. By the 1880s, beriberi and other vitamin deficiencies were being identified, and by the 1920s most major vitamins had been identified and supplements like cod liver oil were being recommended, especially for children.

‘Health food’, in the modern sense of what one might buy in a health food shop, has its immediate roots in the nineteenth century. In the US, new Protestant sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1830) and the Seventh-Day Adventists (1861) avoid tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco, believing that the body, as the temple of the soul, must be protected.

vegetarianism in various forms is increasing in popularity even outside of religious groups. Many vegetarians avoid meat out of compassion for animals and because they believe animal products are unnecessary or unnatural. But some associate meat-eating with capitalism and the exploitation of the environment, and are making a political as much as a nutritional statement. The macrobiotic movement, which claims to have originated in mid-nineteenth-century Japan, returns to more ancient concepts of healthy eating. One popular regimen, lasting seven years, emphasizes cereal grains and the consumption of local and seasonal fruits and vegetables only, because only locally-grown produce can restore balance and harmony.

Popular interest in health foods is becoming more widespread, especially as scientists explore the importance of micronutrients in disease prevention. ‘Whole foods’ that have been minimally processed are recommended in the mass media as being more nutritious, as are ‘natural’ vitamins that are thought to be more complex and not chemically-produced. Health food restaurants and juice bars are no longer the sole property of fashionable parts of New York and California, and shops are crammed with ‘lite’ and ‘no-fat’ alternatives to butter, sugar, beer, and eggs. Health foods, ironically, are becoming less ‘natural’ and more ‘processed’ as science excites popular anxiety about proper nutrition and as eaters attempt to observe the rituals they think necessary for long life and good health.

Faye Getz


Bynum, C. W. (1987). Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the religious significance of food to medieval women. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cook, H. J. (1993). Physical methods. In Companion encyclopedia of the history of medicine, (ed. W. F. Bynum and R. Porter). Routledge, London and New York.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge, London.

See also cholesterol; diets; fasting; food; taboos; vegan; vegetarianism; vitamins.

health foods

views updated May 29 2018

health foods Substances whose consumption is advocated by various reform movements, including vegetable foods, whole grain cereals, food processed without chemical additives, food grown on organic compost, supplements such as bees' royal jelly, lecithin, seaweed, etc., and pills and potions. Numerous health claims are made but rarely is there evidence to support these claims.

natural foods

views updated May 14 2018

natural foods A term widely used but with little meaning and sometimes misleading since all foods come from natural sources. No legal definition seems possible but guidelines suggest the term should be applied only to single foods that have been subjected only to mild processing, i.e. largely by physical methods such as heating, concentrating, freezing, etc., but not chemically or ‘severely’ processed.

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Health foods