To live a clean lifestyle, it’s important to check food labels so you can be sure you’re eating healthy, clean ingredients. Unfortunately, labels can sometimes be misleading. Foods labeled natural are the perfect example of this. If it says “natural” on the box, it has to be safe and good for you, right?
While you might think food companies have to follow a strict set of rules in order to claim a food is natural, this isn’t true. The FDA has no definition of natural. In fact, it admits the food products it reviews are probably processed. It lets companies call any product “natural” as long as it doesn’t have added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic ingredients.
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The big food companies love this. They know that nowadays many people want to eat healthier and cleaner. They use natural washing to trick consumers into buying unhealthy products.
What does this mean?
It means so-called natural foods can contain unhealthy items like high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is made from cornstarch, which everyone would consider natural. However, HFCS is heavily processed. Manufacturers take the glucose in cornstarch and convert it to syrup that’s about half glucose and half fructose. Since fructose is sweeter than glucose, this makes the food taste very sweet.
While HFCS may come from a natural source, it’s far from good for you. It’s known to cause obesity and high triglyceride levels in rats, and may be one of the reasons for the current obesity epidemic and increasing rates of type 2 diabetes.
It’s not where it comes from, but how it’s processed
The FDA says that as long as a food comes from a natural source, it can be called natural, regardless of what happens to it during processing. However, processing can transform a healthy food into an unhealthy one.
For example, oranges are very healthy. They’re high in fiber and rich in vitamins and minerals, including potassium, which is essential for heart health. They contain polyphenols, flavonoids and vitamins A and C, all of which are antioxidants. Research suggests that limonoids found in oranges might prevent some types of cancer.
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The “natural” orange juice you find in the supermarket might be made from oranges, but it certainly doesn’t have the same benefits. Commercial orange juice is pasteurized so it can stay on the shelf for a long time without being contaminated by harmful bacteria. Although pasteurization keeps orange juice from spoiling, it also destroys some of the nutrients.
Processing orange juice also removes the fiber and increases the sugar concentration, so instead of eating healthy, nourishing fruit, you’re drinking a sugary drink.
A food with a natural label can have additives, as long as those additives come from a natural source. For example, many processed foods labeled natural have added sugar. Since sugar is found in nature, a food company can add an enormous amount of sugar to a food and still call the food natural.
Another example of a natural additive is salt water, which is injected into raw chicken to make it look plumper. Because salt, by itself, is a natural ingredient, poultry producers can say that their plumped chicken is natural. People who eat this chicken, without knowing it contains a large quantity of added salt, increase their risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis.
Currently, the FDA allows companies that sell foods made from genetically modified organisms to call these foods “100% Natural”. The FDA says it supports voluntary labeling of GMO-derived foods, but it doesn’t force companies to say they use GMOs. This means you can buy foods made from GMOs without knowing it.
What You Can Do
As long as FDA rules remain the same, you can’t control natural washing. However, you can take some steps to make sure your food is as clean as possible without relying on a “natural” label.
1. Stay close to the original source
Eat foods that are processed as little as possible, or not at all. Instead of buying orange juice, make your own juice from real oranges, preferably from a local farm.
Buy meat and poultry from a local butcher who uses locally reared stock.
Avoid buying from big companies that produce food in huge quantities. Their food has to undergo lots of processing so it can be transported long distances and have a long shelf life.
2. Buy organic
While the FDA determines which foods can be called natural, the “Organic” label is regulated by the USDA. The USDA’s rules are much stricter than the FDA’s are. USDA regulations take how foods are processed into account. For example, dairy or meat products with an organic label must come from animals that grazed on healthy soil and never received antibiotics or hormones. The food must have been processed in a certified organic facility and not had contact with artificial colors, food or preservatives before packaging.
Foods made from GMOs cannot be certified organic.
3. Check the ingredients
Because unhealthy ingredients can be added to foods with an “All Natural” label, it’s important to read ingredients lists. You might be surprised by what’s in your “natural” food. For example, sugar could be one of the first ingredients. Sugar can appear under many names, including high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, dextrin, dextrose, maltose, maltodextrin, xylose and fruit juice concentrate.
Salt is often added to foods labeled natural. If an ingredient has the word “sodium” in the name, it’s salt. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer, contains sodium and can have the same negative effects on your health as table salt. MSG is made from salt and glutamic acid – an amino acid found in many living things – so the FDA considers it natural.
FDA’s Role in Regulating Safety of GE Foods, FDA
High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior
Organic 101: What Organic Farming (and Processing) Doesn’t Allow, USDA
Your Guide to Lowering Blood Pressure, National Institutes of Health