Natural Food Might Not Be So Natural After All

A quick trip to the grocery store will show you the many food options with “natural” plastered all over their packages. But what does this really mean? What first comes to mind might be foods that are in their natural form and contain no preservatives or other man-made ingredients. As it turns out, these assumptions may not always be true. In fact, the use of term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA. Since there is no clear meaning of what this term actually implies, a company may leave it up to the consumer to make their own assumptions about the meaning behind the term “natural”. Even today, the definition of what is considered a natural food product is vague. So what are we really putting into our bodies? Are so-called natural food products — often priced significantly higher than other products — really worth it?

According to a 2015 US phone survey, over 60% of respondents indicated that they thought packaged or processed foods claiming to be natural meant the food contained no artificial ingredients, chemicals, or materials. Almost 80% of respondents indicated that avoiding artificial ingredients in their food is either important or very important. Additionally, 45% of respondents thought that the natural food label was verified. This data implies that many consumers are concerned about what goes into their food but may be unaware of what natural food really means.

The FDA has been pressed numerous times to comment on what natural food labeling means. To date, they have not released any laws surrounding the use of the term “natural” on food labeling nor have they released a formal definition. They have released a statement on what they consider the term “natural” to mean. Their statement includes that “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” One survey found that more people buy “natural” food than they do “organic food” (73% vs 58%). It is important to note that “organic” foods are different from “natural” foods. These are also not regulated by the FDA but ARE regulated by the USDA.

Many companies have faced lawsuits in regard to their misleading use of the term “Natural.”

I found several lawsuits filed against multiple companies after their “natural” products were found to contain not-so-natural ingredients. General Mills agreed to change the labelling of their Nature Valley Granola Bars and several other products from “100 Percent Natural” to “Made with 100 Percent Natural Oats.” This came after multiple lawsuits claimed some of the ingredients used were not natural ingredients. The ingredients under scrutiny included high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and glyphosate. Twinings North America also faced a lawsuit because it claimed several of their products were “100 Percent Natural” when in fact they contained glyphosate. Sioux Honey, the makers of several “natural” honey products, has also had a lawsuit filed against them after several of their products were found to contain glyphosate.

Let’s look at the ingredient aforementioned and find out what they really are. High fructose corn syrup is made from breaking down corn into glucose and then chemically changing many of the glucose molecules into fructose. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar often found in many fruits. However, food manufacturers use a highly processed version of fructose and may add it to products where it is not naturally found. Consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance. Maltodextrin is a class of carbohydrate found in many plants. It is used in the food industry as a sweetener and is produced by a complicated process involving the acid hydrolysis of starch. To get the final product, this ingredient undergoes a large amount of processing. The last, and perhaps the most alarming ingredient, found in some of these “natural” products was glyphosate. Glyphosate is a herbicide used to kill weeds and grass. The effects of small amounts of injected glyphosate has been studied and results are mixed. Some studies indicate that this chemical is likely carcinogenic.

Some companies have come under scrutiny in regard to their misleading use of the term “Natural.”

Snapple has several products listed on their website that claim to be “All Natural.” However, if you look at the ingredients, many contain juice concentrates and citric acid. Most contain only 5–10% juice. Hunt’s “100% Natural” Tomato Sauce also contains citric acid and comes from concentrate. Many people may argue that juice obtained through concentrate should not be labeled naturally. Concentrated products are produced by squeezing the juice out of a fruit or vegetable and processing it to remove the water. This process makes transportation logistics easier because it reduces the weight of the product by extracting the water. Water, and sometimes other ingredients, are added back to the juice prior to bottling. So those products containing only 5% or 10% juice account for the water and other ingredients added to the relatively small portion of concentrated juice. Another ingredient mentioned, citric acid, is a tricarboxylic acid found naturally in citrus fruits. It is commonly added to processed foods by a fermentation process and used as a preservative. The question is, should it be added to foods that do not naturally contain it where it’s intent is clearly to be used as a preservative? That is a question that can be asked about this ingredient and many others added to “Natural” products.

When I began to write this article, I thought I would find that many natural food products were just that: Natural. What I found is many companies that claim to have natural food products but are adding preservatives, processed chemicals, and other ingredients that wouldn’t normally be found in that particular food. I couldn’t begin to cover all the foods and ingredients that deserve a second look. There are so many food companies out there slapping the “Natural” food label on their products without transparency in what that label means. It’s not realistic to expect a company to pull food out of the ground and not add anything to it. Some of the food manufacturing processes and added ingredients are there to keep the consumer safe. In an ideal world, the FDA or the USDA, would regulate these companies claims. Until such regulations exist, it might be beneficial to research the ingredients in your food before buying it. This way you at least know if the “natural” ingredients are good for you and worth the extra cost.

Resources:

https://www.foodpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/Consumer-Reports-Natural-Food-Labels-Survey-Report.pdf

https://www.consumerreports.org/natural-foods/the-difference-between-labels-on-organic-and-natural-foods/

https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means

https://www.fooddive.com/news/nature-valley-will-drop-100-natural-claim-after-settling-lawsuit/530841/

https://www.fooddive.com/news/5-products-accused-of-mislabeling-issues/400694/

https://www.organicconsumers.org/sites/default/files/oca_v._twinings_complaint_filed.pdf

https://siouxcityjournal.com/business/local/sioux-honey-faces-lawsuits-challenging-pure-natural-labeling/article_1dcc1114-966b-53b0-a4e5-bbd37bb17ed5.html

https://www.unlockfood.ca/en/Articles/Carbohydrate-and-Sugar/What-You-Need-to-Know-About-High-Fructose-Corn-Syr.aspx

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/avoid-the-hidden-dangers-of-high-fructose-corn-syrup-video/

https://www.mdvip.com/about-mdvip/blog/read-your-food-labels-watch-out-maltodextrin

https://www.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/glyphosate

http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/glyphogen.html#study

https://www.snapple.com/products

https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Citric-acid#section=Food-Additives-and-Ingredients

https://www.livestrong.com/article/397693-juice-nutrition-from-concentrate-vs-not-from-concentrate/

https://cspinet.org/sites/default/files/attachment/food_labeling_chaos_report.pdf

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