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Nathan Myhrvold founded Intellectual Ventures after retiring from his position as chief strategist and chief technology officer of Microsoft Corporation. At Intellectual Ventures, Myhrvold is focused on a variety of[…]

Due to the negative association of the word “chemicals” with packaged foods, a kind of religion has developed around “natural” foods. Hold on, says molecular gastronomist Nathan Myhrvold. Many of the foods we routinely enjoy in our so-called “natural” diets are heavily processed.

Nathan Myhrvold: A lot of people say, doesn’t your food have a lot of chemicals in it?  I said, yes, it’s chock full of elements too. Everything in life is made of elements and chemicals.  Now, when people say chemicals, what they are thinking is they are thinking, oh is this some artificial thing which is going to be bad for me.  And because a lot of packaged food companies made a lot of food that either doesn’t taste all that great or isn’t high quality and has some legitimate health concerns to it, there is a strong tendency of people who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say, “Oh my god, we should have everything be all natural.” 

Most people who like natural foods still like muffins.  But muffins are made with baking soda.  And there really isn’t any such thing as free range baking soda.

Another issue is this question of processed foods.  Are processed foods bad for you?  Well, there’s processing and there’s processing.  A friend of mine said, “Hey, I don’t like processed foods, I like simple things like bread, wine, cheese.  I started laughing.  There’s no more processed foods in the world than bread, wine or cheese, you know.  Wine is not grape juice.  Thank god it’s not grape juice and people have over a long period of time have developed a set of very exacting techniques that take grape juice and make wine. 

Similarly, bread isn’t just wheat.  You have to pick the right flour and the right mix of flours and there’s tons of technique and skill.  Try making bread if you think there isn’t any skill or technique involved in it. The same thing is true with cheese or dozens of other foods.  So it’s not a question of technique or about it being natural.  Bread is completely unnatural, wine is totally unnatural. 

So if you have a philosophy or a, I like to say, a food religion that says natural is good, unnatural is bad, I think it’s a little simplistic because then you have to say, well what do you do with bread?  Fact is,  sometimes the best way to eat a food is to just eat the raw food or as simply prepared as possible.  But sometimes the best way to eat something is to say, no, I’m going to use some technique and some know-how and some creativity.  That I’m going to take that grape juice and make wine from it or that milk and make cheese or that grain and make bread.