Thursday Thoughts: Natural

It seems it is that time again...Thursday...which means it is time for Thursday Thoughts.

If you are new to my blog, or just missed the past 2 Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate overgeneralizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

Last week I shared my thoughts on HFCS.  This week I want to share my thoughts on the use of the word "natural" on food labels.

Natural would imply that the item was found that way in nature, and was not altered in a lab or using man made ingredients.  So, if this is what we would assume is meant, the initial thought would be this is a food that is good for us, probably nutritious, and therefore probably healthy.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that the term natural is not regulated for food labels and can mean virtually anything.  At this time, after searching the internet, I still can't find information to show that the FDA has set a formal definition.

Here are some of the issues I have with the word natural on a food label: 

1) Natural does seem like it should mean healthy.  Unfortunately, there are many things in nature that are not healthy.  Saturated fats and cholesterol in meats can occur naturally, but this does not mean you should eat a lot of it.  All natural potato chips are likely no more healthy for you than regular potato chips.  Deep fried vegetables are probably considered natural, but again, this would be unhealthy to consume on a regular basis.

2) Some natural products can even be recreated in a lab and sometimes cheaper, so these are alternatives, and in my opinion does not mean there is automatically a reason to leave them out of the diet.  There are tons of food scientists out there and some are also trained in nutrition, and may even be a dietitian.  Not all food scientists are out there creating products like the twinkie, which at the time was probably the best thing ever invented in case we needed food that would last years if we were ever trapped in a bomb shelter.  But in all seriousness, not all man made food additives are going to be bad for you or cause cancer or any of the other things I have heard people claim.  The term processed, which almost seems opposite of natural these days, can mean a variety of things, and usually gets a bad rap because it is not implied as natural.  The lack of definition makes it hard to tell what is and what is not going to really be how it appears based on the label.  Oh, as for the term processed, look for my thoughts on this in the future.

3) Back to the thought that not all things that are natural are good for you.  Last I checked, lead and arsenic were natural too.  I am fairly sertain if lead was sold in a store under a name that sounded healthy and labelled "ALL NATURAL" it would sell very well.  There are tons of natural compounds and toxins out there that should not be consumed, but they are natural, and to some people natural is an indication of healthy.  I think this may have something to do with lack of education coupled with media.

4) Natural could very well imply as found in nature.  Technically, a food containing all ingredients found naturally occuring, is not longer natural.  I can make spaghetti and meat balls (ok, ok, I wouldn't be cause I am a vegetarian, but just play along for a second) from all natural ingredients, but if you want to get down to the science here, the end product is not actual natural. 

5) Which brings me to my last point.  There is no actual definition for nautral on food products.  So, is it that the food itself is natural, like an apple, or is the food made from natural ingredients.  I saw on one internet article from The Center for Science in the Public Interest that 48 out of 53 Ben and Jerry's flavors which are labeled all natural contain ingredients that are not found in nature.  My guess is that many food companies use one natural ingredient in order to validate a label with the words "ALL NATURAL".  In the case of the Ben and Jerry's, I am assuming it was the milk that made this a natural product.  I also saw reports of juice listed as natural, but it was not really from whole fruit.  All natural flavoring is also a strange way to list something because that could really be anything, even a toxic all natural mold.

As always, I look for extremes or dramatic cases to make my point, but sometimes it takes those extremes to see where there are flaws in something.  In this case, the thought that natural means healthy is certainly flawed.  Until there is a clear definition on this term, if you see it on a food, do not assume it is healthy.  Always, always, always read the food label, even if the food looks like it is good for you.

QUESTIONS:  What are your thoughts about the term natural on food labels?  What does this word mean to you?  Do you buy products because they are labeled as natural?

If you have any topics you wish for my thoughts on, please let me know.


Gina; The Candid RD said...

Great post Melinda. I have to give a presentation to a bunch of eighth graders at the end of the month and I was thinking of bringing up this issue, as well as HFCS. They want me to talk about some common nutrition terms that sometimes get confusing.... This post brought up some points I had never thought about, so I appreciate it!

Beth said...

Melinda, as always, I can't agree with you more on this one. Some of the stuff that's sold as "natural" makes me cringe. And not necessarily all "processing" is bad. I mean technically, isn't making yogurt or cheese a type of processing?

Special K said...

This is excellent...can you give this to the library or a community presentation for your base? Seriously, people need to hear this topic.

Nicole, RD said...

Labeling laws are terrible, misleading things. The things that are most natural don't have a label to deceive us -- they came from the ground or grew up on earth (animals, not people!) ;) Great post!

Kristen (swanky dietitian) said...

Great post! I think people are so quick to think that since something is natural (and also organic-get that one a lot), it is healthy.
I definitely could see as a consumer how this labeling could be confusing.

Andrea@WellnessNotes said...

Great Thursday Thoughts! I am actually extremely suspicious when I see the word "natural" on a package...

Emily said...

This is definitely a confusing term...lots of things are natural that aren't ok to eat in enormous quantities!

For meat & poultry, the USDA has set up the following labeling restrictions when using the word "natural" :

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as - no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)

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