Monday, 06 February 2012 11:05

The Natural Illusion - by Brenda Frick

by Brenda Frick, written for Organic Alberta

“How many animals of each kind did Moses put on the ark?” When asked this question, most people simply answer “2”. They know that Noah was the ark-meister. They just don’t notice that Moses has been slipped into Noah’s place in the question. They are focusing on number of animals.

In psychology, this is referred to as the ‘Moses Illusion’. It is the most well known example of a general concept called the semantic illusion. People often don’t notice word substitutions if their focus is elsewhere, especially if the changed item is similar to the one for which it was substituted.

People have busy and stressful lives. It is not surprising to find that our focus often is elsewhere while buying food – perhaps on the kids, the mortgage and the politics at work. Even if we do have our ‘eyes on the prize’, it is probably chicken and carrots and breakfast cereal, rather than organic chicken, organic carrots and organic breakfast cereal that holds our focus. So it’s not surprising that ‘natural’ foods, usually prominently displayed and easy to find, end up in our baskets.

It’s also easy to see why people accept the word ‘natural’ as being in the same category as ‘organic’. Both terms imply that the product is grown and raised and made in collaboration with nature, without poisons or other additives.

In a national survey done by the Hartman group in the USA, consumers identified 6 attributes that they associated equally with organic and natural labels. These qualities were all things that were absent: pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, artificial flavours/colours/preservatives, genetically modified foods and antibiotics.

To consumers ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ mean pretty much the same thing: healthy, whole and real. But is this perception correct?

First let’s look at the natural label. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has guidelines for natural food. For them it’s all about post harvest handling. Natural foods should not contain food additives. They should have nothing removed except water. They should be minimally processed, or left unprocessed. Natural foods should contain only natural ingredients.

In this definition of natural, what happens before harvest or slaughter doesn’t really matter. There is nothing here about pesticide use, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, or antibiotics. If you want to avoid these things, the word ‘natural’ is not an indication of what you want. When you buy a natural product, the ingredients were grown or raised under conventional production methods. Plants were likely grown with synthetic fertilizers and were sprayed with pesticides.

And as to the type of processing, there are guidelines. However, even CFIA suggests that the word ‘natural’ is “often misused on labels and advertisements. There is no regulation to prevent this. Manufacturers and producers may use these terms without any restrictions.

What about ‘natural’ meat? Consumers expect that the natural product is raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, without cages, with a diet of grass and forage. What is the truth behind ‘natural meat’? As with plants, CFIA suggestions only apply to processing. The animals were raised in conventional production systems and likely were given antibiotics, and feed that was treated with fertilizers and pesticides. Beef animals likely received growth hormones.

As the term ‘natural’ is unregulated, the integrity of the claim depends on the integrity of the seller. If you talk to the producer, you can ask. If you deal with a retail establishment, most staff are woefully misinformed. According Consumer Reports, “there is no guarantee that [grocery store consumers] will receive the correct information about the products they are buying”.

Now let’s consider the organic label. The ‘organic’ claim is regulated in Canada. Products must be certified to the organic standard to bear the ‘organic’ label. This means that the farms and factories are inspected, and actually meet the regulation.

The Canadian Organic Regulation mandates that crops are grown with methods that restore and sustain the environment; provide soil fertility using biological means, not synthetic fertilizers; and manage pests with biological, mechanical and cultural techniques, not toxic chemicals.

Under the Canadian Organic Regulation, animals must be provided with living conditions and space appropriate to their behavioural requirements; with organic diets; and healthy, reduced stress conditions. Antibiotics, hormones and genetically engineered products are forbidden.

Organic processing is also held to a strict standard that maintains the organic integrity through all processes from farm to the point of sale. The way processing is done and the products that may be used are regulated. Food additives are minimized, and are largely limited to those of organic origin. Even cleaning, storage and packaging is regulated.

From this it is clear that ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are not similar claims. As consumers we need to be more vigilant, to pay attention, and not substitute natural for organic. Ironically, if we want to be sure we are getting the qualities of natural – grown, handled, processed in ways that value nature and respect the consumer – we need to pass over the natural product and reach for the organic one.

Brenda Frick, Ph.D., P.Ag. is an Organic Research and Extension specialist. She welcomes your comments at 306-260-0663 or via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Thanks to Amanda Bristol for telling me about the ‘Moses Illusion’.


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