In poring over some public opinion and consumer research recently, I concluded that food-buying Americans really love “natural” things.  Organic?  Sure, but not overpowering.  Conventional? You have to explain what that means.

The clear preference for natural is a bit unnerving. That’s because in the world of marketing and food labels, natural means—not much. Several government bodies have tried to develop a standard for it and punted. All such efforts ended in failure. Now organic is different. There are standards and a certification program. Most people who want a so-called natural diet can accomplish that by buying organic, though they should be prepared to spend more.

High fructose corn syrup can be considered natural, and some folks run screaming from the room when they hear “HFCS” so much as whispered.  The truth is, corn sugar, cane sugar and beet sugar are all pretty much the same chemically, though all would fit most definitions of natural. It is the artificial sweeteners that are born in the lab.

Are you healthier by scarfing down a natural Chipotle burrito? In terms of calories, fat and carbs, it’s quite similar to a McDonald’s quarter pounder.  But Chipotle is only too pleased for you to believe otherwise on the basis of a clever Internet cartoon.

The truth is, you can be healthy eating an organic or a lower cost conventionally grown diet—if you choose lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meat, limit sugar intake, take it easy on the carbs and get plenty of exercise.

The rest is political and marketing hype.  Naturally.  What isn’t these days?