Common food labels designed to get your dollar: the ‘natural’ label

Jar of Meijer Naturals pasta sauce

When I go shopping for groceries, I usually base my choices off two factors: price and quality. We’re a family of five, so purchasing healthy and nutritious foods, all while staying under my weekly budget, is important. However, today there are an overwhelming number of food labels that can be rather confusing. For example, “organic” labels tend to imply that there pesticides aren’t used and that the food is nutritionally superior to conventional items. This isn’t the case. Organic farming does use pesticides and research has shown that organic produce isn’t more nutritious than its conventional counterparts.

So what other deceptive labels may be out there? In this short series, I’ll explain some of the ones I encounter most often. I’ll explain them, then let you decide if these labels are worth your dollar.

Natural

“‘Natural’ does not mean good, or safe, or healthy, or wholesome. It never did. In fact, legally, it means nothing at all. Mercury, lead, and asbestos are natural, and so are viruses, E. coli, and salmonella. Any chemical, whether it comes from the root of a tree or the shelves of your medicine cabinet, can cause serious harm. It depends how much you take. That is why one of the fundamental tenets of medicine holds that ‘the dose makes the poison’.”
― Michael Specter

Nothing about processed food is natural, yet many food manufactures like to use this label on the packaging of their items. In fact according to the Washington Post, this label helps companies sell approximately $40 billion worth of food in the United States annually. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have a set definition for the term “natural”, nor does it oppose the label as long as the food doesn’t contain any synthetic substances such as artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners, stabilizers or added colors.

Factoids about "natural" product label

Source: Common Ground

Where’s the misconception, you might ask? The misconception is that these added preservatives and artificial ingredients are inherently dangerous. The purpose of preservation was to allow us to store foods in our pantries and refrigerators for an extended time (even years), which meant we didn’t have to constantly buy fresh food. We could shop less frequently and also save money from food spoilage.

Food additives also serve many purposes, such as enhancing mouth-feel, reducing crystal formation, and prevention of microbial contamination. Many of the food additives today are safe. They are required to meet specific food safety guidelines set by the FDA. In fact, they are more heavily monitored, regulated and studied today than ever before. In terms of “natural,” many, if not most, of these additives are naturally derived. Many people assume ingredients with long, complicated chemical names aren’t safe. For example, dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical found in antifreeze and can corrode metal. So why is it used in the foods we eat every day? While it sounds pretty scary, DHMO is simply water.

The word “chemical” itself sounds threatening, which is why manufacturers use the word. Sometimes the word “synthetic” will be used to differentiate laboratory-made chemicals from natural chemicals. Scientists can synthesize the exact same chemical structure of a naturally occurring chemical and the body cannot distinguish between the synthetic and natural versions.

For example, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is indistinguishable from the glutamate that occurs naturally in the proteins of some foods. In fact, on average people consume roughly 13g of naturally occurring glutamate each day and about .55 g from added MSG in processed foods. Similarly, the ascorbic acid added to canned foods is no different that the vitamin C found in an orange. So it makes no sense to spend the extra money on a food item just because of its original source.

The bottom line. The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to limit the amount of packaged and processed foods you eat, regardless if they’re labeled as “natural” (potato chips are still potato chips!). There is not an added health benefit to buying and consuming products labeled as “natural.”

Have you chosen one product over another, despite being more expensive, because of this label? Let me know your thoughts below in the comment section. Also, look forward to the next article in this series regarding the “hormone-free” label!

– Joohi Castelvetere is a nutrition and food scientist and a mother to three amazing children.  She’s also a Parenting Program volunteer.


Read more:

  1. Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives, and Colors, Food and Drug Administration
  2. Hormones in Your Food, Thecowlocale
  3. Natural and other food labels that sound legitimate but may not be, CNN
  4. What are the benefits? (GMO crops), PBS

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