It’s Only Natural

‘Look at that.’ my mum said, pointing into a branch of LUSH, ‘How does somewhere like that stay open in the middle of a recession?’

For those who don’t know, LUSH sells luxury soaps and other cosmetics. I disagree with her on two points. First, she thinks their soaps smell horrible, but I rather like them (though not at the price – talk about paying through the nose). Second, I understand full well how such a chain stays afloat in economic times as desperate as these. The reason? They have a magic word that makes otherwise sane human beings spend twice as much money as they should: ‘Natural’.

Well, actually they have two, the other word being ‘handmade’. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t care if my soap is made by a human or a machine, given that I only use it to wash my private parts every morning. If anything, a machine is usually cheaper, more hygienic and less prone to making mistakes, but I digress.

Of course, it’s not just LUSH that’s guilty of this marketing ploy. One of the worst offenders is the food industry – especially children’s food. It has become one of the latest tools of social snobbery between competitive parents, as this advert transparently exploits:

Egad! Petits Filous contains FIFTEEN ingredients!? How exactly does that make it inherently evil? What if the seven ingredients in Müller fromage frais were cyanide, arsenic, plutonium, asbestos, Dopey, Sneezy and crack cocaine? Okay, I’ll calm down, but seriously, I fail to see how the number of ingredients alone should sway anybody from not buying a particular product.

Moreover, Müller is proud to boast that none of those seven are E numbers. Now they may not have added any on their own, but I have no doubt whatsoever that there are naturally occurring E numbers in their fromage frais. Either that, or their children’s food contains no vitamin C, calcium, or phosphate (for example), which doesn’t sound like a very healthy food to me. Moreover, I would like to add that one of the seven ingredients is “natural flavourings”. If it’s flavourings (plural), that brings the total to more than seven, which is very naughty advertising. It’s also unknown what those flavourings really are.

This is the real heart of the matter. Parents reading the words ‘natural flavourings’ will unquestioningly assume that that makes them safe. There’s a small amount of sense to this; organisms are generally intolerant of substances to which they are not naturally exposed, hence why lead and mercury are poisonous to us. But it’s not that simple. Deadly nightshade is perfectly natural, but not perfectly safe. It has evolved to be poisonous to mammals such as humans, and we have learnt not to eat it. The red food colouring cochineal is extracted from a natural source (though a scientist usually tinkers with it so it can’t unexpectedly change colour), but because it’s an E number, and because it comes from an insect, pushy parents will foam at the mouth at the mere mention of it. What should be remembered is that the E in E number signifies that the substance has been approved for use in food within the EU. Anything not on the list is approved by food safety authorities within each country, and it seems to me to be the epitome of irrationality that some people only trust ‘natural’ ingredients over synthetic ones when both are approved by the same public bodies. Let’s also not forget that scientists generally operate in much cleaner environments, and thus ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ foods are generally less hygienic, and prone to causing infectious diseases.

I also have a problem with the words ‘natural soap’. While LUSH have never claimed their soaps are natural (they do claim some of their other cosmetics are), many such companies do. To a chemist, there is no such thing as a natural soap. Soap does not occur in nature. It has to be made by reacting fats with the caustic compound sodium hydroxide. Meanwhile, many artificial ingredients in foods and cosmetics are carbon copies (literally) of their natural counterparts.

I intend to visit artificial food additives and the like in more detail another time, but for now I want to leave you with this thought. When I asked my mum why people are drawn to the ‘natural’, and repulsed by the artificial, she argued that it was something natural in its own right. She said it was hardwired into what Jung called the ‘collective unconscious’ – we have learned as a species to be cautious of the new and unfamiliar.

I couldn’t disagree more. During the mid-20th Century, scientific advances were praised and admired by the public at large, and most people were eager to experience the new strange wonders that the modern world could bring. I want our society to get back into that habit. Rather than reject the hard work done to improve I want the word ‘natural’ to become a dirty word in retail, and anyone who abuses it should wash their mouth out. I know a good place that sells soap.