Natural Foods Nation

As the natural foods movement goes mainstream, are American consumers being catered to or co-opted? Or both?

Mark Steele

Over the last 25 years, the natural foods category has earned broad cultural status and caché — and there are millions of loyal consumers to prove it. Organic food sales have soared, and rustic farmers markets and glossy Whole Foods outlets alike are thriving, while consumers talk knowledgeably about the benefits of hormone-free meat and sustainable farming practices. National coverage of First Lady Michelle Obama’s cultivation of an organic garden on White House grounds is merely a visible reminder that natural foods have gone mainstream. But these successes paradoxically make it tough to maintain the philosophical and ethical principles that originally gave rise to an interest in natural foods.

From its beginnings, the American natural food movement advocated a diet based on whole grains and fruits and vegetables, not only as a means to achieve better health, but as an expression of reverence toward nature, an appreciation of self-reliance and the simple life, and a distrust of industrialization. Generally credited with launching the movement in the United States in the 1830s, Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham spread ideas about the harmful application of modern techniques to food cultivation and preparation, and about the benefits of an ascetic lifestyle. For Graham — whose name lives on in the coarsely ground dark fl our he invented (and the tasty crackers it produced) — physical and spiritual health were to be found in sexual abstinence, vegetarianism, pure cold water, and brown breads baked in the home using fl our produced from locally grown wheat.

For many decades, the natural foods movement encouraged consumption of the most basic foods. But this began to change in the late 19th century with the birth of the health food industry in Battle Creek, Michigan. John Harvey Kellogg, who ran a Seventh-day Adventist sanitarium, kept his patients on a vegetarian diet and began
to develop foods suited for the sanitarium dining room. As he found a broader clientele for these products beyond his original religious community, the commercial potential of natural foods became clear.

During the first half of the 20th century, natural foods found a small but growing following. Proponents were often mocked as food faddists, and their advocacy of organic and small-scale agriculture was clearly out of step with a national policy that promoted an industrial model based on costly synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as food technologies that developed countless new products utilizing chemical ingredients and complex manufacturing processes. But in the 1960s and 1970s, huge waves of natural food adherents emerged, swept in by a counterculture that rejected anything hinting of artificiality, including food.

An association with long-haired hippies provided opponents of natural foods with new opportunities for derision. Yet growing sales demanded that the movement be taken seriously. By the time the counterculture faded in the 1980s, entrepreneurs were figuring out how to capitalize better on the public’s interest in health, environmentalism and quality food. As the industry evolved to appeal more to the mainstream, the ramshackle health food store of the past gave way to bright, large, carefully designed outlets. Meanwhile, natural foods producers worked on creating products that more closely resembled their conventional counterparts in packaging and in taste. The days of alfalfa sprout and wheat germ burgers were over.

However, growth has had the unintended effect of undermining some of the core principles that once fueled the movement. For instance, Kellogg’s manufactured health foods were the forerunners of the increasingly complex and processed “natural” items available today. Almost 4,000 new products claiming to be organic or all natural bombard consumers each year. In place of basic ingredients the home cook uses to prepare a meal, the natural foods consumer now purchases pre-cut vegetables, snack bars, spreads and sauces, and frozen, microwavable dinners, all encased in layers of packaging that can withstand long-distance shipping and lengthy shelf lives. These foods reinforce the notion that convenience matters the most — even if it means utilizing environmentally unsound packaging and relinquishing the opportunity better to control what we eat by making it ourselves.

Similarly, efforts to expand the market have led to industrialization within the natural foods sector. Today, longstanding natural foods companies such as the Hain Celestial Group share the natural foods market with major corporations such as ConAgra and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. They are all hungry to serve a mass market and have developed strategies to enlarge their share of the pie by obtaining supplies from all over the globe, going where production costs are cheaper and where growing seasons are more favorable.

Mass production makes it difficult for smaller players to compete and complicates the meaning of “locally produced.” For example, one plan to serve locally grown carrots to New York schoolchildren involved shipping carrots from New York farms to Michigan, where they would be cut into the shapes kids liked, bagged in child-sized portions and then shipped back to New York. Industrial methods also create financial incentives to water down standards. Large-scale chicken operations are very expensive if animals need enough land to range free. But the pressure to keep costs down is intense, since consumers without a firm commitment to natural foods are unwilling to pay higher prices.

It is not surprising that today’s consumers gravitate toward variety, efficiency and low prices. But there are sizable costs to putting those preferences above other goals, whether in regard to natural or conventional food. The environmental issues are most obvious. What is also at stake, though, is control over the food supply from farm to table. A powerful agrifood sector has historically been able to convince legislators to provide public subsidies and a regulatory climate that favors large producers in exchange for cheap products in the supermarket. It seems unlikely that this stranglehold over public policy will change if the food produced just includes a greater share of natural products.

Traditionally, the natural foods movement acted as a reminder that technological innovation and organizational growth do not always result in better health, environmental practices or price stability for food producers and consumers. Serving local markets, providing products with minimal processing or additives, and maintaining high environmental standards may keep natural foods from becoming truly mass for a long time. But by refusing to make growth the foremost business goal, the natural foods field can continue as the conscience of the food sector.

Laura J. Miller is an associate professor of sociology. She is currently writing a book about the relationship between the natural foods industry and natural foods as a social and cultural movement.