Ask A Dietitian: What’s So Great About “Natural Foods?”

*This post focuses on “natural foods” and the science behind that phrase.

One of the many advantages to joining the Cooking Light Diet is having access to our staff of professionals. In particular, members can tap into the expertise of our James Beard Award-winning lead dietitian, Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, who’s been an instrumental part of the team since we launched our service in 2014. 

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 mini muffin packages. Then she brought up the last two items.

“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 a while. It’s something that not only aggravates me as a dietitian but also makes me mad as a consumer and mother.

Here’s the thing: the “natural” label 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.

This means the food may or may not contain artificial ingredients, GMOs, chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics.

Yet today, “natural” pops up more than ever on foods, which leads 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 foods”

The problem with “natural” isn’t straightforward. But it’s important for consumers like Ashley to know more. So I’ve boiled this down into 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,” and “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. “Natural” can be loosely applied to most any product if you get creative. And manufacturers ultimately are the ones deciding whether to apply it to food. The FDA will look into possible inappropriate usage of “natural” 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 the issue. 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 oxymorons no matter what’s on the ingredient list?
“Having only a vague description makes “natural” hard to police—but most consumers don’t realize that.”

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 2016, Consumer Reports shone a light on just how deceptive it is to consumers. In a survey of more than 1,000 Americans, Consumer Reports found that around 60% of consumers look for the “natural” label on food and “believe the natural foods 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.

So what’s a consumer to do?

The good news is that the FDA agreed to examine the “natural” label thanks to petitions and was taking public comments until May 10, 2016, about if and how that label should be used on foods. 

But on October 22, 2018, they released a response to those comments, and it should be noted that “The FDA did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or healthy benefit.

So there’s still a lot of ambiguity. There could be more to come on this subject from the FDA, but any outcome will be awhile. In the meantime, here’s how I advised Ashley (and how I’d respond if you asked me about it):

Choose whole foods over processed when possible.

Choose apples over sweetened applesauce. Go with broccoli you steam and add butter and lemon to over frozen, sauced florets.

Or roasted sweet potato wedges tossed with oil and salt over “natural” sweet potato fries or chips. Sometimes it can be just as easy—and cheaper, in fact—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 run-through 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? Which brand has the shortest and least complicated ingredient 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. Rely instead on defined and regulated labeling terms—things like “organic,” “no antibiotics,” and “no hormones.”

Don’t starve your family or stress.

Don’t let finding the healthiest processed foods prevent you from putting dinner on the table. And don’t feel like you need to make everything from scratch. Being aware and asking questions is the first step.

It means you’re already doing something. Take it food by food, meal by meal, and figure out what’s right—and doable—for you.

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