Doing What Comes Naturally
By A.D. Freudenheim

12 September 2003

I was recently given an Odwalla Bar!, a high energy snack food that is described on the package as being a “nourishing food bar” comprised of “Whole Fruits & Grains” with “Ingredients You Can Pronounce.” So, curious person that I am, I flipped the bar over to look at the ingredients and nutrients listed on the other side.

Now, a few weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the high(er) tolerance that our government – and many of our fine corporations – has for risking the lives of its citizenry: tolerance for bad products, damaging ingredients, or unqualified services. A similar set of questions might be asked in reverse, about all of the so-called natural products currently on the market, and the bizarre affection for them on the part of the American people. This is not a new issue – for years companies have been staking out claims suggesting that their particular brand of consumer goods are more natural than the competitions’. Do you, reader, remember the Breyer’s ice cream ads from the 1980s, where the pitchman, looking at the container for another brand, asks viewers “Carageenan? What’s carageenan?” The question goes unanswered, but the implications are clear enough.

In theory, our food marketplace has come a long way in the last twenty or thirty years. The available options for organic food has grown beyond the hippie-driven vegetable co-ops that were popular in the 1970s and 80s, as supermarket chains like FreshFields (which sells, but does not really specialize in organic foods) have gained market share and as large chains in places like Texas (e.g. Central Market) have begun selling more natural foods, and promoting items that – in theory – are less processed or have fewer pesticides or chemical content. There is nothing to complain about here; these are (excuse the pun) very healthy trends.

That said, these healthy trends do not remove the consumer’s obligation to be a savvy shopper, to keep the dictum “caveat emptor” in mind, because the mere fact that something says its healthy or natural does not – of course – actually mean that this is so. Nor are there many rules about the use of or definition of the term “healthy” (or other words, like “nourishing,” for that matter) in the food marketplace; even though eating an apple is probably a lot healthier than eating a honey-sweetened, apple-juice-flavored, natural apple popsicle, the popsicles are likely to receive a lot more marketing assistance than the standard Granny Smith, and that will no doubt focus on how “natural” they are. Americans consumers like to fool themselves, making irrelevant or marginal distinctions between different kinds of products – between, say, the relative healthiness of eating some kind of chicken nugget from one fast food place versus the “whole” piece of fried chicken from another – in order to appease their nearly-insatiable appetites for unhealthy fats, plenty of salt, and lots of refined sugar.

Which brings me back to the Odwalla food product sitting on my desk – their “Super Protein” bar. Looking at the nutrition facts, there isn’t much to argue about: it has a medium fat content at 8%, and has 16mg of protein, along with plenty of necessary vitamins. It also has a lot of very small print, including a line that says “This Product Contains 3% Organic Ingredients”; I am not sure if that is supposed to be a lot or a little – are they bragging, or just sheepishly acknowledging? - but it does not seem like much to me. And then there are the ingredients, which I am supposed to be able to pronounce, according to the information on the front of the bar. This gets tricky; since I consider myself mildly literate, and knowledgeable about the English language, I am fairly certain that I can, in fact, properly pronounce ingredients like “Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (B6),” or “Chromium Polynicotinate” although in each case there is some question in my mind as to which syllable deserves the emphasis. Including a guide to pronunciation, or even phonetic spellings, would greatly strengthen their case that these are ingredients easily spoken by the average consumer. Show us how, folks, and we can surely do it.

The Odwalla bar claims to have “Whole Fruits & Grains,” and yes, tossed into the ingredients mentioned above, along with the “Protein Blend” and the “Rice Syrup,” are “Dried Unsulfured Unsweetened Coconut” (that actually means natural) and “Organic Rolled Oats,” which seems self-explanatory. So the Odwalla folks are not lying. In fact, I am not accusing Odwalla of lying; the bar looks to be very much like what is advertised: a nourishing food bar with whole fruits and grains, ingredients I can pronounce, and 16 grams of soy and rice protein. But being able to pronounce the ingredients in my food is an issue entirely distinct from actually knowing that what is in my food is truly natural, or even healthy, which is to say, not heavily processed or overly filled with chemicals. (I can pronounce “methamphetamine” but that does not make it a healthy thing to ingest.) Nor does mixing natural foods in with protein or vitamin isolates that are not chemically familiar make me feel better about eating this or any other food; I would much rather have unprocessed, un-enriched foods – where the vitamin or protein or other necessary content is naturally-occurring – than products that have been machine-tweaked to fit some elusive dietary goal. In other words, I would rather eat an apple than an Odwalla bar, and if I’m missing the protein, I’ll have some edamame.

I do not mean to pick on Odwalla; they are only one brand among a wide selection of nutrient bars, pitched to the bourgeoisie as necessary consumer items for their active, gym-going lifestyles, and on a cursory inspection, Odwalla’s bars seems to be among the more natural products on the market. From the Power Bar to the Tiger’s Milk bar, there are probably as many flavors and styles (chewy, crunchy, protein-rich, energy-rich, etc.) available as there are personalities to eat them. And that, in a way, is exactly the problem. Just like the junk food industry, and the fast food chains, this is another area where American consumers are sacrificing any semblance of the truly natural for the expediency of a quick fix that promises – on every side of the packaging! - to be all that and more.

Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.