Unnatural History of Natural Food

By: Frederick Gibbs  

It's hard to find a food menu or package without seeing the phrase "all-natural" somewhere. Because the term has become so ubiquitous, its long, complex, and enlightening history can be easily overlooked. This talk focuses on the early developments of the idea of natural food in the US, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century as it emerged in conjunction with new convenience and packaged foods. As described by diet and health reformers, as well as by the burgeoning food industry's ads and packaging, I outline how so-called natural foods came to represent a way of engaging or disengaging with changing food production practices, marketing, and consumer culture. In addition to a rhetorical analysis of how the term appears in various contexts, I show how the concept of natural food provides a revealing but neglected lens onto popular conceptions of nature. Even amidst massive cultural change over the last century, the idea of natural food--particularly how it has been formulated, contested, and appropriated--will provide much needed perspective on contemporary (but often ahistorical and reductive) debates about the meaning and implications of natural food.

"Health", " Diet"
Food, Nutrition, and Health
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Prof. Frederick Gibbs

My work in medical and environmental history focuses on the changing historical relationships between food, diet and health (particularly the popularization of nutritional science), and the intersection of food, environmental, and urban histories (particularly food production, distribution, and geographies of health).