There’s never been a more exciting and opportunistic time to become a real food enthusiast than right now. As the organic and health food world continues to grow at remarkable rates, eating real food has become so popular it was listed as one of the biggest food trends in 2014. Consumers continue to be intentional with seeking out foods as close to nature as possible, and when they come from a package, they want them to contain “all-natural” ingredients. But it’s becoming more and more confusing to really tell the difference between truly “natural” foods and bogus marketing claims. Recent surveys found the word “all-natural” to not only be the second most used food label, but it’s also one that consumers find extremely important.
When asked, “Which is the best description to read on a food label?” twenty-five percent of consumers answered, “100 percent natural.”
But what does natural and all-natural really mean? We see it on all sorts of foods, from deeply discounted ground beef to highly processed chicken nuggets, leaving many scratching their heads and wondering, “If a chicken nugget is all-natural, then what the heck is an apple classified as?” The label has become so meaningless, in fact, that the large consumer giant Consumer Reports has begun a petition to urge the USDA and FDA to drop the misleading “natural” label from food altogether.
If we’re looking for answers and regulations from the government, unfortunately we’re going to come up short. The word natural is one that is unregulated with almost no real oversight. The FDA states on its website:
“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the Earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.“
While I’m no legal expert, I would guess that statement would make it pretty hard to regulate the use of the term natural on food labels. Because the FDA just regulates non-meat products and “processed foods,” this vague definition is what allows a company like Tyson to use the label of all-natural ingredients on its packaging.
Things become a bit more clear-cut with meat products regulated by the USDA, and their definition is a bit more defined. The USDA’s definition of natural reads:
“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’).”
While this definition is much more clear-cut than the FDA’s, it still does allow for animals treated with antibiotics or raised in factory farms to be labeled as natural. So if those sorts of things matter to you, then the label natural isn’t really going to count for much in that area.
Before 1973, when the FDA repealed an old law enacted in 1938, it was a little easier to differentiate natural foods from their imitation counterparts. The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules on the word “imitation,” stating: “There are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting, and if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”
You could only imagine how well that would go over in today’s cornucopia of strange fake foods. Everything from margarine to cheese in a can would be eliminated from natural label contention and would instead be branded “imitation.”
Clearly, with everything from cheese puffs to chicken nuggets donning the natural label, the label isn’t really worth a grain of salt at this time. So what can you do if you are interested in eating real foods in their most natural state with few, if any, processed ingredients? Here are a few ways I try to stick with truly all-natural foods so that I don’t have to even rely on reading marketing claims labeled on food products.
6 Tips for Truly Eating “All-Natural” Foods:
1. Use Whole Foods as the Building Block of Your Daily Diet
First and foremost, aim to have a good portion of your diet consist of whole foods in their natural states, which don’t really require a label or a lengthy ingredient list. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, eggs, nuts, and seeds all require no real label to even contend with. Start with these as the building blocks of your daily diet, and go from there.
2. Seek Out Antibiotic-Free and Organic Meat
When sourcing seafood, meats, and poultry, look beyond just the natural label and seek out animal products raised without the use of antibiotics. And if you’re concerned about the use of GMOs in poultry feed, seek out organic animal products, since the use of GMO feed is prohibited in the raising of organic animal products. The grass-fed label on ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep will also ensure the animal has grazed on its natural diet of grass, rather than corn and grains, and the wild-caught label ensures the seafood was caught in its natural habitat, rather than farmed with the use of antibiotics and a strange mix of fish feed. Going the route of grass-fed, organic, or at least antibiotic-free meats and poultry items will ensure you go beyond the term natural.
3. Beware of Processed Ingredients
When buying packaged foods, does the ingredient list read like a long stream of a foreign language? Do you find yourself Googling hard to pronounce ingredients in the middle of the supermarket? If so, it may be an indication that the food, while possibly containing some “natural” ingredients, has been processed in an unnatural way, often in a lab with the use of harsh chemicals. High fructose corn syrup is a perfect example of a product that starts off on the right foot, beginning as corn, but then is tweaked beyond in a lab. Also, pay attention to terms like expeller pressed oils, since these are oils that have been produced using a much less harsh process than oils produced using chemical solvents.
4. Watch Out for Preservatives
Look for packaged foods that contain zero preservatives, or at least use truly natural preservatives and plant-based colors and flavors, rather than artificial ones.
5. Avoid Foods That Are Low-Calorie, Zero-Calorie, or Fat-Free
Few foods which occur naturally have zero calories, so food products like salad dressings, decadent sauces and, of course, diet sodas defy the laws of nature just by existing.
6. Analyze What the Final Product Looks Like
Ask yourself, does the end product look like something naturally occurring or somewhat close to nature? If the answer is no, it probably isn’t all-natural or even close to being natural. If you spend any time eating out at all or indulge in the occasional bit of junk food, chances are you will expose yourself to some sort of unnatural ingredient. While it’s important to know your facts and not be misled by marketing schemes and false labels, you also have to pick your battles and decide just how much you want to limit when it comes to unnatural ingredients.
The real takeaway here is to not fall for the “natural” claim on food labels, as there really is zero government regulation of companies making natural food claims. Read your labels, do the best you can to educate yourself, and don’t sweat the occasional unnatural byproduct every now and then.