Over the past few decades, there has been a growing trend toward the use of fewer chemicals and more minimally processed products. These changes have been evident in several industries, including cleaning products, cosmetics, and most certainly in the food industry. This shift in consumer preference is especially clear in the grocery aisles, where words like “organic”, “farm fresh” “non-GMO” “all natural” and “natural” are jumping out at shoppers more than ever before.
All sorts of items, from fresh produce to milks, chips, crackers, and other processed foods, can be found bearing the “natural” buzzword. More specific food companies are making claims about natural flavours, sweeteners, colours and preservatives. The variety of products and use of the word “natural” makes it very unclear as to what the producer is actually trying to tell us about their product. His brings us to today’s big question: What does it actually mean when a food is labeled with the word “Natural”?
Here in Canada, for a food to be “Natural”, it must:
- not contain, or ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive.
- not have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water. For example: the removal of caffeine.
- not have been submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state (i.e. maximum processes).(2)
Things get even more confusing when it comes to the USA. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service defines the word “Natural” when labelling meat and poultry as:
“a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”)” (1).
Outside of meat and poultry, there is no set definition for the word “natural”on other food products in the United States, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Association.
Unlike other buzzwords like “organic” and “trans-fat”, which have been clearly defined, in both Canada and the USA, guidelines for using such a powerful word seem ambiguous and leave large loopholes for marketing. Terms like “minimally processed”, “significantly alter” don’t mark clear, objective regulations for companies to follow, and leaves customers with no better guidance that what they started out with. When reading these definitions (and lack of definition), it becomes clear why the public is so frustrated with the regulation of marketing in food, and to wonder how the United states can have gone so long without any governing definition.
In a request for comments on the use for the word “Natural” on food labeling by the American Food and Drug Association, the vast majority of the more than seven thousand responses were negative and stated that the term needs be more clearly defined, and that junk food products and foods containing genetically modified organisms should be banned from using the word “Natural” on their labels (3). Many people were clearly passionate about the subject stating they felt lied to, and that the term was a scam by the food industry. Many have felt so strongly that they have taken legal action against food companies that sell and produce items with natural claims while containing ingredients such as GMOs, high fructose corn syrup, and synthetic vitamins (4). These strong opinions don’t seem to differ outside of the USA. An international study (5) showed that the majority of shoppers read food labels, but their opinions on the healthiness of a food didn’t solely depend on the claims on the label and found the labels misleading.
So in summary, how can shoppers bypass the murky waters of “Natural” claims to make healthy choices for their families?
- Brush up on your cooking skills
You can easily avoid a lot of the scary ingredients at the grocery store by avoiding processed foods and preparing your own staples at home. Preparing homemade soups, bread, granola, veggie dip, sauces or salad dressings puts you in control of the ingredients and can help avoid unnecessary additives. If the idea of homemade bread is too daunting, check out your local bakery for a potentially shorter and less scary ingredient list than the grocery store stuff.
- Don’t be afraid of foods that don’t fit the “natural” guidelines
A lot of really nutritious, whole foods don’t qualify as “natural” in Canada, and that doesn’t make them bad. For example, vitamin and mineral fortification means that nutrients are added that were either not there to begin with, or that are re-added after processing, like B vitamins in wheat flour. Fortification is a great way to ensure you are getting the nutrients your body needs that are often lacking in a North American diet. Things like breakfast cereals, cow’s milk, non-dairy milks, and bread are often fortified, and are still very nutritious options. Other processed foods that are your friends include dried legumes, and frozen fruits and vegetables, which often have more nutrients in the off-season than their fresh counterparts.
- Read Ingredient and Nutrient Labels
In line with the steps above, you can see the added ingredients and minerals in a product by quickly scanning the nutrient and ingredient lists. Check for things like added salt and sugars, colourings and preservatives. Nutrition facts tables are also a great way to compare two products and decide which is best in line with your food needs and values. This may seem overwhelming at first, but with a little practice, these can be a powerful tool to help you make more informed food decisions.
- Campos, S., Doxey, J., & Hammond, D. (2011). Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review. Public health nutrition, 14(8), 1496-1506.
Written By:Laura Thibodeau B.Sc. Biol. B.ScFN Candidate
Edited By: Karly Meincke, Registered Dietitian & Sports Nutritionist