There’s a commonly misapprehended assumption that because something is “natural” it must be automatically “better” for us. However, if everything from nature really were “best” — then why have people constantly tried to improve on the nutritional bounty nature has given us since the beginning of human history?
The first humans were hunters and gathers, and could only eat what they trapped, successfully stalked and killed, scavenged, or foraged — often in one sitting before breaking camp and moving on — and they usually couldn’t safely store more food than they could carry for long. Each day people would get up and start their tribes’ traditional food acquisition processes all over again — sometimes not finding their next “real” meal for days in less fortunate circumstances. It was feast or famine, and spoiled food or drink was a constant risk. Eventually though, people figured out how to grow and stockpile food and domesticate animals rather than just hunting for them, and the agricultural revolution began.
The Rise of Human Ingenuity
With that rise in relative abundance of surplus foods that could be set aside for storage, people figured out clever ways to preserve food so that we could enjoy the fruits of our harvests for weeks or even months after they were picked. We did this by pickling, canning jams and jellies, and drying fruits, vegetables, and meat for future use.
Eventually, with the invention of electricity, we were able to keep more food and beverages safe to eat for even longer periods of time with the help of refrigeration and freezing. Concurrently, after the industrial revolution, the rise of American manufacturing, and various scientific breakthroughs in the creation of preservatives, we were able to make, ship, and keep food edible for even longer periods of times (sometimes even years!) at a much lower cost.
Backlash of Scientific Advancement
Recently though, there seems to have been a bit of an irrational backlash toward all of these modern advances that people have made which so dramatically helped sustain and grow our societies in terms of quality food manufacturing. Many consumers now want their food to be “all natural” — or at least that’s what they think they should prefer. But perhaps what they really want is to feel like they’re eating food that their grandmother or great-grandmother could’ve made them.
I’m not denying that fresh fruits and vegetables taste better and are probably better for you. The tomatoes my parents grow in their garden always taste better than their canned brethren, sure. However, there is a point when “natural” products may not actually be the best thing for consumers on a large scale. And that point becomes clearest when we’re compromising food safety.
Why Natural Isn’t Always Best
We live in an on-demand society. Consumers expect to go into a grocery store or their favorite restaurant and get what they want when they want it.
However, there’s a line where what consumers say they want and what they’re realistically willing to pay for just don’t mesh. Sure, we could make many products “all natural” if we really wanted to: and consume them more locally in short and expensive production and distribution cycles. However, making many products “all natural” in this way would pointlessly cost a lot more for both manufacturers and consumers. Here are a few major ways that insisting on “all natural” products could seriously affect your bottom line:
Quantity — Because the shelf life of your product is reduced, you’ll have to order in smaller quantities and more often. Smaller runs cost more money than larger runs because you can’t take advantage of bulk buying. With the reduced shelf life, there is also the potential for more waste, further increasing the total food cost.
Packaging — When a product becomes all natural, certain types of packaging just don’t work. I was recently visiting an equipment company that was testing a “Natural and Organic” bag-in-the-box-style soda. I was curious, because I knew that if this product was true to its label, it would be without preservatives: a risky option for sure, considering that this product is stored and shipped ambient and run through equipment and lines that are ambient (and in some cases in high temperature areas ideal for microbiological growth). As I was viewing the product they had set up on the equipment, I noticed that one of the bags had already formed yeast and was expanding, preparing to explode! In other words, the product was already bad and it hadn’t even left the manufacturing facility yet.
Additional Costs — Even when something is well produced and packaged as an all natural product, safe shipping and storage of the finished product is still a serious concern. Sure, there’re viable processes such as aseptic, frozen, and refrigeration. But, at what cost? Aseptic processing is an expensive process whereby products are heat-treated and packed in a sterile environment. Many of these products have taste degradation problems as a function of the aseptic processing. Frozen and Refrigeration works, but there are other downsides. Transportation and storage costs increase substantially, leading to increased food cost.
Are Preservatives Really so Bad?
With all the talk today about why “preservatives” are so bad for us, I think many people have forgotten why preservatives can be a good thing in the first place.
- They prevent food borne illnesses.
- They’re the most cost effective way to keep food fresh.
- They allow for more diverse foods to be safely produced, stored, and delivered to the consumer while avoiding product spoilage risks such as yeast, mold, and bacteria.
- They help keep taste and color degradation from happening: ensuring that the consumer gets a consistent product time after time. Think about how that quality will keep them coming back for more!
- They are FDA approved! Plus, there are legal limits to many preservatives that keep usages of preservatives at levels that’re scientifically proven not to be harmful to individuals.
Moving forward, we as manufacturers in the food and beverage industry need to practice two things. First, we must be innovative and constantly seek ways to make our products healthier for consumers. Second, we must not be tempted to sacrifice food safety or quality as we seek to attain that first goal!