Bags of chips, cans of soda, jars of salsa, boxes of cereal, and more now bear "natural" labels. These products may be sourced from foods that grow under the sun, but crackers don't bloom on trees and carbonated drinks don't bubble up from mountain springs. When it comes to food labels, what does the word "natural" really mean?
Natural and organic foods and beverages are the fastest growing categories in the grocery store. Consumers spend more than $25 billion a year on such foods, and the market may double in the next three years, according to market research.
Retailers often link the terms "natural" and "organic," making the strong implication that they are interchangeable. Unlike "natural," the word "organic" is defined and regulated by the U.S. government. "Natural," on the other hand, may mean something-or nothing at all. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) maintains and enforces guidelines for the use of the term as applied to meat and poultry. "Natural" in this case means no artificial ingredients or added colors, and can be only minimally processed. But these rules ONLY apply to meat and poultry products, including eggs and cuts of meat.
With other foods, "natural" has no legal meaning. This means that companies are free to put the label on practically any product. For example, consider the issue of whether cola can be natural. Many colas contain only a few ingredients: filtered carbonated water, preservatives (like citric acid) and high fructose corn syrup, which may be derived from a natural source but is produced by a complex process.
In part because high fructose corn syrup is widely used as a substitute for sugar, the Sugar Association has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to adopt the USDA's definition of the term "natural" for all foods, not just meat and poultry. The Sugar Association feels that it should be used for all products that do not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients and is not more than minimally processed. Such a standard would call into question many products that currently bear natural label (frozen pizzas, potato chips, and colas) because of their high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and modified starches and fats, chemical preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.
What can you do to ensure that you are buying natural foods? Here are some tips:
1) Choose whole foods - Whole foods are the best nutritional bargains-regardless of whether they are organic or conventionally farmed.
2) Opt for organic - Buy a food bearing the green and white USDA organic label, and know that it was produced without conventional fertilizers or pesticides, contains no genetically modified ingredients, and in the case of dairy products-is free from antibiotics and growth hormones. It also means that any entity that has handled or processed the food before it reaches the supermarket shelves (or restaurant) is certified organic, as well.
3) Look for other well-defined label terms - The terms "low fat," "high fiber," "low calorie," and specific health claims (such as "heart healthy") are carefully defined and regulated by the FDA.
4) Remember that natural and organic foods can be high in calories - The word natural creates a level of confidence on the part of the health-conscious consumer that a food is somehow better for you. For example, potato chips may be all natural but they are still a high fat food with a lot of calories.
5) Read the ingredient list - Look at the back of any package to best assess what's really in a product. The front of the product is the billboard but you need to read the ingredients list. Make sure that the list seems appropriate for the product that you are buying.
More natural than you might think:
Some food additives are completely natural, although you might not know it from their names:
Ascorbic acid - This is another name for vitamin C. When added to foods, this citrus food derivative acts as a preservative. Citric acid, although similar, is used mainly to impart a sour taste.
Acacia and guar gum - These are binding agents that help thicken a food. Each is harvested from a tree or shrub of the same name.
L. bulgaricus and L. thermophilus - These are two of the beneficial bacteria most commonly added to yogurt.
Lecithin - This emulsifying and moisturizing agent is a component of soybeans or egg yolks and is used to help foods stay moist.