What makes a food “natural?”

The other day, my brother’s friend asked me if tofu is natural. I replied, “That depends on your definition of natural.” So he asked me if tofu was natural according to my definition of natural. I opened my mouth to answer, then realized I was utterly stumped. I’m so used to talking and thinking about how the word “natural” means nothing on food package labels that I hadn’t really given any thought to what it should mean. When I did think about it, there was no way I could articulate a binary definition of a natural food; in other words, I cannot, from my point of view, label foods as either absolutely natural or absolutely unnatural. I think you can only determine the relative naturalness of a food compared to other foods.

Take tofu, for example. Tofu is made by fermenting soy milk, which is produced by pressing soybeans, which come from a soy plant. Tofu is a processed form of soy, so I would say it is less natural than fresh edamame (a.k.a soybeans). And tofu is, I would venture, more natural than, say, packaged soy ice cream, to which sweetening, texturizing, and preservative agents are typically added. Thus, the relative terms “natural” and “processed” are inversely related; the more processed a food is, the less natural it is. To promote health, we should try to eat foods that are on the more natural and less processed end of the spectrum, a.k.a. whole foods, like I’ve been telling y’all from the beginning.

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2 thoughts on “What makes a food “natural?”

  1. Interesting take. I would definitely say organic tofu is part of a very healthy diet. And I believe that a lot of people would consider it a “whole soy” product (rather than more processed soy such as soy milk). Thanks for your take on it!

    • Of course! I never meant to imply that tofu wasn’t healthy; on the contrary, it’s relatively very natural and healthy compared to most staples of the Western diet, and I eat it without hesitation all the time. But actually tofu is more processed than raw soy milk; one makes tofu by fermenting soy milk.

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