A couple nights ago, I was wandering the aisles of my local Rite Aid, on the corner of Grand and Clinton Streets. Flooded with fluorescent light, organized into extremely regular rows, on brand, this Rite Aid is very much an antithesis to the Whole Foods now three quarters of a mile away.

I always find this particular Rite Aid to be a bit curious. It occupies a very large and presumably valuable piece of real estate. And yet, it’s perpetually understocked, strewn with unpacked deliveries in generic plastic blue containers, fairly devoid of customers, and watched over by rarely more than one cashier.

At the same time, in sheer square feet, it is more the sort of drug store one would expect to find in a suburban mall, than in Manhattan. (But then, the whole area south of Delancey and east of Bowery is a strange world unto itself. More or less abandoned by the subway, this neighborhood operates at its own special pace, all the while poised within walking distance of Wall Street.)

So I was surprised to find, in a store which can hardly lay claim to keeping up on the latest products (or showing any indication of caring), that Crest has a new toothpaste called Nature’s Expressions. There it was, leaf motif and all, where I least expected to discover nature.

What a tell tale sign of the popularization of “natural” products.

It is even more striking, to me, that a brand as venerable, main stream, and All-American as Crest, feels the need to slap a leaf on its classic product. Something is up. I feel the continents shifting. If Coke follows suitorganic Coke anyone?–we’ll know nature has moved to the center of American socio-political culture. (After all, McDonald’s and, especially, Wal-Mart have already begun to go this direction.)

Still, if I may paraphrase something that Freud never said anyway, a leaf is not always just a leaf. Companies like Crest and Wal-mart (and no doubt Whole Foods as well) want to capitalize very literally on the rhetoric of environmentalism and organics. That is, they want to turn the idea of nature and the environment into capital.

It is neither here nor there, for these companies, whether their products and their business practices have any actual positive impact on the environment or your body. In some instances they might have a positive impact (and what a nice confluence of interests! they’ll say, perhaps even believing themselves). But as Crest’s new product Nature’s Expressions shows, it’s probably cheaper and easier to just run with an idea.

It is true, of course, that Crest’s new toothpaste comes in three natural-ish flavors, Citrus Clean Mint, Pure Peppermint Fresh, and Mint + Green Tea Extract. It is also true that these flavors are naturally sourced. (Meaning that they actually come from natural ingredients.) It is even true that there are leaves and lemon twists pictured on the packaging. And above all it’s true that the home page of the Crest web site features a Flash animation of little birds gently delivering a tube of each new flavor to a picturesque window sill, while bucolic scenery expands happily into the background on the other side of the window.

Curiously, though, given the way the window is oriented, the scenery appears on what ought to be the inside of the window, as if tacitly admitting that something is not right here.

And indeed, things are not quite as they seem. For Crest’s Nature’s Expressions toothpaste takes great care to “express” “nature” not only through dabs of pure mint oil and extracts of green tea, but also by including: Sorbitol, Hydrated Silica, Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Disodium Pyrophosphate, Flavor (includes peppermint & anise oil and menthol), Xantham gum, Polyethylene, Sodium Saccharin, Carbomer 956, Poloxamer 407, Titanium Dioxide.

I find it fascinating that the flavor of Crest’s Nature’s Expressions is only partly derived from natural sources. The rest is derived, by an apparent tautology of chemistry, from “flavor.” Another especially interesting ingredient here, to me, is polyethylene, which as far as I can tell is plastic. Apparently it serves as an abrasive in commercial toothpastes. Nothing like petroleum products on your toothbrush!

To be fair, sorbitol and hydrated silica can be found in at least one other “natural” toothpaste, made by Tom’s of Maine. But Tom’s of Maine was recently purchased by Colgate-Palmolive, so it seems a little dubious where their commitments lie.

What can be taken away from all this? The fight for nature is on. Who will own the image of nature? That’s the question. Nature per se, I suspect, is yesterday’s news. As another blog I ran across aptly suggests, nature has become a form of kitsch. I wonder personally if nature ever really existed in the first place? Perhaps it was never more than an afterthought of civilization. Perhaps always an idea. Perhaps it’s one of those words, like “reality,” which has little meaning unless put in quotes. Whatever the case, nature is an idea with legs and a bank account now.

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