Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The "Unnatural" Truth

True or false: The word "natural" on a food label means that the food contains only healthy ingredients.

You may be surprised to learn that the answer is false! Food companies can use the word "natural" on any food label, regardless of the ingredients contained in the food. Unlike the term "organic", "natural" is not regulated by the USDA. (The one exception to this is meat and poultry. "Natural" meat and poultry must be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and other such ingredients. However, the term does not refer to how the meat was raised.)

I was disappointed to read that the nation's largest organic dairy company, Dean's (Horizon Dairy), has chosen to exploit the fact that most people do not know that there is a difference between "natural" and "organic". Dean's is launching a new "natural" line of products that will be less expensive than their organic products because they won't be organic.,0,6783490.story

What does the organic seal on a food label mean? Foods bearing the organic label must meet or exceed standards set in 2002's National Organic Program. They are grown without synthetic pesticides, bio engineered genes, and fertilizers made with petroleum or sewage sludge. Organic foods must also be grown using tactics that promote biodiversity and renewable resources. Livestock labeled "organic" must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

The bottom line is: "organic" is regulated and means something. "Natural" can be slapped on any label and is usually just marketing mumbo-jumbo. I personally think that it is too bad that food companies are taking advantage of the reputation built by organic farmers over the years by confusing the public with their "natural" claims.

What's a consumer to do? I like to recommend that people ignore all of the "healthy", "natural" and other words on the front of food labels and go straight to the ingredient list. Look for foods with ingredients that you can recognize and pronounce. The fewer ingredients a product has, the better. Products with an extra long list of ingredients usually have a bunch of preservatives and additives that you don't really want. Finally, get rid of the belief that anything labeled "organic" or "natural" is automatically a great choice. Potato chips and other snack foods should not make up the bulk of your diet, even if they are organic. Remember, most of the healthiest foods do not even require a food label (apples, carrots, strawberries, etc.) because they are not packaged.

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