When you see the word “natural” on a food label it is often used in a way to suggest that food is healthy, free from preservatives or chemicals, and generally good for you. In reality, the use of the term is kind of loosey-goosey. In America, the FDA lets you use “natural” on a label if there are no synthetic ingredients. A gob of pork fat on top of peanut butter and chocolate is natural by that definition so not healthy or good for you, just not synthetic. So how do you know what natural really refers to?
Turns out there are a lot of things in the world that we probably think are natural and normal just because we’re used to them or expect them to be that way when that isn’t necessarily the case.
10. Farmed Salmon is Not Naturally Salmon Colored
Salmon is the second most popular seafood in America behind shrimp. It’s even more popular than tuna. Americans eat a stunning 918 million pounds of it per year. Because salmon is so popular there’s just no way all of it can be wild-caught. Salmon farming has been a popular alternative for decades now and 70% of all salmon eaten in the world right now is farm raised.
While there’s nothing wrong with farm-raised salmon, assuming it’s done responsibly and ethically, there are still some notable differences between it and wild-caught. For instance, the color. If you have farm-raised salmon that bears that distinctive orangey-pink color you expect from salmon, that’s not technically natural at all. Salmon color is natural to wild salmon.
Wild salmon eat krill and shrimp which have astaxanthin, a natural red pigment. Much like flamingos, which we’ll talk about shortly, get their pink color from eating shrimp, so does salmon. But farmed salmon rarely eat a diet rich in shrimp and krill, they eat a sort of kibble that keeps them alive and offers basic nutrients. It’s made of some fish but also soy, corn, and other filler material. But they also add artificial astaxanthin.
Natural farmed salmon would have gray flesh, but no one wants to eat that. So they add the astaxanthin to alter the color and make it look “real.” The fish are healthy on their artificial diet and you still get nutrients from eating it, but the color is added to make it more convincing to the consumer.
9. Broccoli Does Not Occur Naturally, It Was Bred Into Existence
When we think of natural food vs unnatural food, we might hold up a Twinkie as an example of something unnatural while some healthy, green broccoli is natural. But we need to ask what natural means again in this case. Broccoli never occurred in nature on its own, it’s the product of some determined Italian farmers who were tinkering with wild cabbage.
The vegetable was created through some selective breeding that dates back to the 6th century BC in Rome. The process of turning a kind of wild cabbage into broccoli was a long one but not an unusual one in the world of farming.
Farmers would grow plants and find ones with the desired qualities. In broccoli’s case, this was probably ones with thicker stems, more flowering buds, and a less bitter taste. They would ignore the other plants and take the seeds from these more desirable ones to plant the next crop. If you keep pollinating only the desirable plants and cultivating their seeds, you can steer the genetics of the plant toward your goal – a tastier, more robust vegetable.
8. Lemons Are a Hybrid and Didn’t Exist Naturally Beforehand
Speaking of crafty farmers, the humble lemon is an absolute kitchen staple and is used around the world to add brightness, acid, and a pop of color to many dishes. It works in sweet and savory, you can add it to meat, fish, vegetables, and even dairy, drinks, and desserts. Nearly 21 million metric tons of lemons and their green sidekicks the lime are produced every year.
Citrus seems to have appeared around 8 million years ago out in the wild. Because of the similarities between citrus varieties, you can cross them to make new fruits, much like apples can be tweaked and bred to make new varieties.
Long ago a pomelo and a mandarin were crossed to make a sour orange. That sour orange was crossed with a citron and the result was a sour, yellow citrus that we call the lemon. The difference here seems to be that this was a natural hybrid rather than one forced by farmers. The plants probably grew in abundance near each other, trees got cross-pollinated and new fruit happened.
So, if it’s a natural hybrid you can certainly consider lemons as natural as broccoli but, just like broccoli, had circumstances not been what they were, the lemon never would have existed.
7. Flamingos Aren’t Naturally Pink
The one thing everyone in the world knows about a flamingo is that it’s pink. Tall, skinny, kind of weird? Sure. But pink. They make obnoxious lawn ornaments just to drive the point home. But, just like our friend the salmon, all is not as it seems. Flamingos are naturally whitish-gray.
Flamingos eat a diet rich in carotenoids, the natural pigments found in living things like carrots, shrimp, and algae. The shrimp eat pigment-rich algae and the birds eat the algae and the shrimp, doubling down on the colorful stuff.
When flamingos eat food rich in beta-carotene, their liver absorbs them and they end up being distributed through the bird’s body to the feathers. Their diet is almost exclusively things that are full of beta-carotene so they absorb enough to give their skin and feathers the pink hue. The more they eat, the darker they get, which is why some flamingoes may just be a pale pink and others are a deep, rich, almost red color.
6. Cheese is Not Naturally Orange
The world makes over 22 million metric tons of cheese per year. If there are eight billion people in the world, that means we make 5.5 pounds of cheese per person per year. Do you eat five pounds of cheese in a year? Because that’s your share. If you’re American, statistics say you’re eating about 41.8 pounds per year. That’s a heck of a lot of cheese. There’s a good chance some of that is good ol’ orange cheddar, too. But that cheddar isn’t natural.
Annatto, a dye that comes from fruit, is often added to cheese to make the orange color. It’s added because it doesn’t alter the flavor but changes the color and, at one time, that was a desired outcome.
In 16th and 17th century England there was apparently some desire for yellow milk. Cows put out in certain pastures would graze on plants that had some of those same carotenoids that we saw earlier with the flamingos and the salmon. That made the milk richer, yellow, and more flavorful.
In winter, when they had to eat whatever stored food was sitting around, the milk was whiter and less desirable. To compensate, farmers added annatto and made the milk and the resulting cheese yellow or orange.
The farmers also realized that the real money was in the fat. They could skim off the fat, which held the color, and make money selling it as butter or cream. Then, with the pale, fatless milk, they could add annatto to make it look rich again when it became cheese. They were essentially committing fraud, making their cheese look like something it wasn’t so it would seem high quality, and probably enjoying some higher profits as a result.
5. Chickens As We Know Them Never Existed in the Wild
Have you ever seen a wild chicken before? Keep in mind that a chicken that gets loose and runs to the woods is not a wild chicken, it’s a feral one. Like puggles and other animals that have been bred by humans for many generations, chickens are not actually wild animals and never were. Their ancestors were, but we bred them into something new that never existed in a wild state.
Modern chickens came from jungle fowl. Archaeologists put an incredible amount of effort into trying to trace chicken origins because their bones don’t lend themselves to fossils well. What they discovered is that chickens follow rice.
Where rice was cultivated, chickens appeared. The belief is that rice drew out the wild chicken relatives and they grew accustomed to humans who eventually domesticated and bred the birds. This first happened around 3,600 years ago in Thailand, then slowly spread across Asia, the Middle East, and finally into Europe 2,800 years ago.
Earlier theories suggested chicken domestication was much older, as much as 8,000 years, but that doesn’t follow the evidence.
4. Sleeping for 8 Hours Straight Isn’t a Natural Sleep Cycle
Most of us have heard that you need a solid 8 hours of sleep per night to be well-rested. That idea is not something that has a lot of historical precedence and it seems like it’s not a natural sleep cycle at all. Biphasic sleep is more natural and involves two sleep periods in a day rather than one. The idea is you sleep for a short period during the day and a longer period at night, but never just one eight-hour block.
In one experiment, subjects naturally fell into a pattern of sleeping three to five hours, then waking and doing various tasks for a couple of hours, then sleeping again for another three to five hours. This same pattern can be seen in various animals and in pre-industrial societies where people don’t have access to artificial light.
It’s speculated that this kind of sleep, where you wake and then sleep again, would have had advantages in the distant past when you were vulnerable to predators and couldn’t afford to konk out for eight hours at a time.
3. Being Tolerant of Lactose is Not Natural
If you’re lactose intolerant, there’s a chance you’ve felt like there’s something wrong with you because of it. Look at everyone else loving cheese and ice cream and there’s you not having any of it. Truth be told, that is a backward view of the situation. Lactose tolerance is statistically not the norm at all.
About 68% of the people in the world can’t absorb lactose. It’s not even the norm in the rest of the mammalian world where, after weaning, animals no longer drink milk and they’re not well suited to digest it as adults because they stop producing lactase to allow for it.
Humans basically forced themselves to tolerate lactose as well as they currently do. Evidence shows that Europeans were not having a good time with milk as recently as 5,000 years ago but a mutation developed around that time that allowed them to digest it and spread through the population. Odds are that things like disease and famine were putting pressure on survival and those that couldn’t digest lactose died off leaving only those that could behind.
2. Brown Sugar is Not a Natural Form of Sugar
Have you ever heard that brown sugar is healthier than white sugar? It’s sometimes claimed that white sugar is refined too much or bleached or whatever to make it an unhealthy kind of sugar compared to brown which is presumably somehow more natural. Oddly enough, the opposite is true.
Brown sugar is refined the same way white sugar is. Not just similarly — exactly the same. It starts as white sugar and then molasses is mixed in to make it darker in color and alter the flavor. But it’s not a natural state for sugar by any means and is definitely not healthier. It just offers a different flavor profile.
1. Cats Meow Almost Exclusively for the Benefit of Humans
How often does your cat meow at you? How often have you seen a video of a cat meowing about something or other and wondered what it was saying? Research suggests that the cat really is saying something, but it’s only for your benefit. Cats don’t naturally meow all that often unless a human is there to hear it. They do it for us.
In the wild, cats communicate by marking their territory. Most aren’t pack animals and even those that are don’t need to communicate with loud noises. Vocalization requires close contact, but scent markers are more efficient for cats. Kittens meow at parent cats until they’re old enough to be independent and then it usually stops. But cats will meow at humans their whole lives.
Anyone who owns a cat will probably joke that their cat can be manipulative, and it’s kind of true. They developed vocal communication to get our attention after they were domesticated because scent marking doesn’t tell us much.