The use of the word “natural” in the food industry is an attempt to make the public believe that an item is healthy or a better choice over a competing product. “Made with natural ingredients,” or “includes natural flavors.” Think of it this way; viruses and other dangerous (even deadly) microorganisms are entirely natural. That doesn’t make them good for us. So what does natural really mean anyway?
According to the consumer advocate magazine Consumer Reports, this can be a very misleading term. While not too many food manufacturers will put the term “unnatural” on their foods, food described as natural can be healthy, unhealthy or have no effect on you at all.
Consumer Reports believes so strongly that the natural label is being applied to possibly unnatural foods that it has urged the FDA to ban its use on food labels.
By the way, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the United States has not even come up with a hard definition of what natural really means on a food label. The same problem exists in many other modern countries. That is why manufacturers of otherwise unhealthy products have been slapping the natural label on their food for years.
If the “Natural” Labeling Process Seems Confusing, You Are Not Alone
A recent survey of 1,000 shoppers conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center revealed that 60% of the survey takers actively searched out the term natural on food labels. 66% of those polled expressed a belief that the term natural means food with no artificial ingredients, genetically modified organisms or pesticides. But none of those requirements are mandatory for a food to carry the natural designation.
With no hard and fast rules as to exactly what natural means, this adjective could be trusted too much as it applies to food.
Having said that, what steps should you take to find out if the food you are considering buying is actually “natural” or not? If you really want to purchase the item or have already purchased and/or eaten the item and want to verify an ingredient, you can contact the manufacturer to request an ingredient list. It may take some time, but get someone on the phone. Ask some hard questions. Record the name of the individual you are talking to, and ask for any and all relevant information to be sent to you via snail mail or e-mail.
If a representative for a food manufacturer or processor tells you that information is “proprietary” and cannot be revealed, alarm bells should go off, it usually means there is something they don’t want to announce to the world because it tarnishes the image they are trying to convey to the public (As an example, a company may not want to admit that they’re using high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener when the image they want people to think of is fresh fruit.)
Don’t forget that foods with tons of sugar and calories may truthfully be natural, but that does not make them healthy.
If you’re avoiding allergens, GMOs, or other ingredients, it’s easier and less stressful to just avoid packaged foods wherever possible. Eat whole foods more than processed food items and you will automatically enjoy more truly natural and healthy foods.
It’s a scary food jungle out there, be safe and be ingredient aware.