A “Natural” Label on Food Means Next to Nothing. Here’s Why.

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Credit: beinluck/Getty

My friend Ashley called for feedback on her grocery purchases. As a dietitian, I’m used to friends asking for food guidance. Most are pretty knowledgeable and make good choices; they just want to “double-check,” so I listened as she rattled off her purchases. I commended Ashley’s selection of steel-cut oats, unsweetened almond milk, and organic fruit and cheese for snacks. I promised again that her kids wouldn’t starve without their processed cheese crackers and packages of mini muffins. Then she moved on to the last two items.

“And for the chicken breasts and ground turkey, I made sure to buy a brand that was labeled ‘natural’ so it wouldn’t have any hormones or antibiotics. That was right, wasn’t it?”

Her comment made me pause because it’s something that’s had me simmering for awhile. Something that aggravates me as a dietitian, but makes me mad as a consumer and mother.

Here’s the situation: “Natural” on food doesn’t mean much. In fact, “natural” really guarantees little to nothing about a food’s quality, ingredients, or how it was grown or raised – meaning the food could (or could not) contain artificial ingredients, GMOs, chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.  Yet, “natural” pops up more than ever on foods, misleading educated consumers like Ashley to believe they’re getting a healthier product. Heck, I’ve even caught myself subconsciously choosing a “natural” food over one without the label.

The Problem with “Natural”
The problem with “natural” isn’t straight-forward, but I think it’s key for consumers like Ashley to understand. So I’ve boiled it down to the two main issues.

1. There is no definition for “natural.”
Really. The FDA has not officially defined “natural.” They only give a loose description or expectation that “nothing artificial or synthetic” be in the food that “would not normally be expected.” This makes “natural” different from other labels like “organic,” “low-sodium,” “no antibiotics,” which have very specific definitions and criteria for usage. Having only a vague description makes “natural” hard to police – but most consumers don’t realize that. Right now, “natural” can be loosely applied to most any product if you get creative, and manufacturers decide if it should be used on food. The FDA will look into possible inappropriate usage of the “natural” label only once they’ve received numerous complaints.

2. What should “normally be expected” in frosted toaster pastries?
The predominance of processed food and the usage of “natural” on them further complicates things. Very few foods are purchased in their whole, as-grown or as-slaughtered state. Even minimally processed foods have one or two ingredients added. So, how do you decide what would not “normally be expected” in processed foods that were never found in nature to begin with? Aren’t foods boasting the word “natural” like strawberry yogurt, whole-wheat tortillas, and frozen French fries somewhat an oxymoron no matter what’s in the ingredient list?

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Credit: beinluck/Getty

How big of a problem is “natural”?
For a while, I wondered if “natural” was just my nerdy nutrition pet peeve—maybe most consumers weren’t falling for the misleading label—but in January, Consumer Reports brought to light how just how much it’s misleading consumers. In a survey of more than 1,000 Americans, Consumer Reports found that around 60% of consumers looked for the “natural” label on food and “believe the natural food label means more than it does.” Maybe even more eye-opening was their review of seven popular processed foods, all with “natural” on the packaging. Ingredients in the foods included artificial chemicals, caramel coloring (possibly containing a carcinogenic chemical), pesticide derivatives, and genetically modified foods.

What’s a consumer to do?
The good news is that he FDA has agreed to examine “natural” thanks to petitions and is taking public comments until May 10, 2016 about if and how “natural” should be used on foods. But, any outcome will be a while. In the meantime, here’s how I advised Ashley:

– Choose whole foods over processed when possible. Choose apples over sweetened applesauce; broccoli you steam and add butter and lemon to over frozen, sauced florets; sweet potato wedges tossed with oil and salt and roasted over “natural” sweet potato fries or chips. Sometimes it can be just as easy–and in fact cheaper–to make a quick, from-scratch dish using whole foods.

– Check the ingredient list when buying processed. As a working mom, I know processed is necessary for convenience (and sanity) at times, so be ingredient-savvy when you do buy. Here’s my unofficial decision-making process for buying processed:

1) Does it have five ingredients or less? If so, go to step 2. If not, are there other brands that do? If not, which brand has the shortest and least complicated list?

2) Do I know what all five (or fewer) ingredients are? Do they seem normal or expected?

– Don’t avoid “natural” foods, but look for other words. You don’t have to avoid “natural” labeled products – just don’t rely on “natural” as an indicator of food being higher quality, healthier, or safer. Instead, rely on the labeling terms that are defined and regulated – things like “organic,” “no antibiotics,” and “no hormones.”

– Don’t stress. Don’t let finding the healthiest processed foods prevent you from putting dinner on the table – or feel like you need to make everything from scratch. Being aware and asking questions is the first step and means you’re already doing something. Take it food-by-food, meal-by-meal, and figure out what’s right and do-able for you.

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