“All Natural” Foods – Useful Information or Just Marketing?

(BeWellBuzz) Natural, all-natural, and certified organic, oh my!  Processed, healthy, vitamin-enriched, GMO and non-GMO, oh my! Raw, pasteurized, unfiltered, expeller pressed, centrifuged, what’s next?!

You’re smart. You’re savvy. You know what all these terms mean. But do your friends?

Do they know which if any of these claims are actually regulated? Some of the terms do demand that food makers meet stringent requirements to be able to use them; while others, simply, don’t.

What’s more, there are processes that affect foods in ways that can harm us which science has yet to uncover. We got a wake-up call about this when trans-fats were discovered. It turned out that the partially hydrogenated oils in margarine created dangerous trans-fats in our bodies, doing serious harm to people’s health. Yet, margarine was marketed as a “low in saturated fat!” health food, and still is.

Certified…Natural? No Such Thing.

The terms natural and all-natural are mostly unregulated, and some call them meaningless. The claim “natural” that we find on a sundry of food products, in the least and most processed foods, has never actually been defined, or regulated, by the FDA. Whereas a company must be certified by the USDA in order to claim “organic” on its packaging, there is no regulation, nor any clear definition to qualify a food product as “certifiably” natural. Health-consumers that desire to eat only “natural” foods may find that seemingly reputable companies have been using this term entirely too loosely.

Whole and Untouched vs. Processed Foods

The only truly “all-natural” food is a whole food growing in the wild, to be plucked from the ground, bush or tree and eaten. Technically, a food becomes processed as soon as it’s altered in any way. By this definition, once you’ve cooked, chilled, salted, pickled, canned, extracted or aged it in a barrel, you’ve processed a whole food and it’s no longer natural, or in its naturally occurring state.

Maybe you think that’s taking things a wee bit too far? Just because I took the time to sprout a wheat grain, or to pickle a cucumber doesn’t mean it’s unnatural, does it?

The FDA’s Non-Definitive Statement

Extreme or not, this is where the FDA has lived for a long time, like, decades. As a result, the issue we’re really trying to get at has been left unresolved. Maybe it’s just going to depend upon us using the power of demand, and not being swayed away from integrous manufacturers by lower prices.

While some companies adhere passionately to the highest standards of food purity and quality, marketing their foods as natural and certified organic, others have used the claim natural just to attract buyers, and this they’ve done without ground and without penalty. How? Because the FDA isn’t regulating it. In fact, several companies that you may have known and loved recently demoted themselves from certified organic to “natural” in order to avoid the more costly requirements. As a result, the organics industry has taken a hit from the natural claimants.

When the people got vocal and began petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to release an official definition and impose regulations, their response made it all the way to the FDAs FAQs. Here was their answer:

“…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.”[1]

In these past decades, FDA also hasn’t objected very much to the wrongful use of the term. Part of this is because of a gray area in the difference between what is considered a natural or artificial flavor (for more information, check out our article demystifying natural/artificial flavor additives). The rest of their reasoning for avoiding this problem is mostly unknown.

Perhaps just as alarming is the absence of any mention in this FAQ guideline about other controversial and potentially harmful food contents.

Natural…GMOs and Pesticides?

You might not feel that GMOs should be considered natural. Nevertheless, a product containing genetically engineered (GE) crops is permitted by the FDA to advertise itself as all-natural, and doesn’t have to confess to its GE content unless:

  •  the new food has evidenced a significant change to its nutritional profile,
  • it contains a new allergen, or
  • it shows an increased measure of a toxicant.

Firstly, remember that these are only guidelines. There are no strict regulations or enforcements in place yet. Secondly, note that if science hasn’t yet found a problem with their GE ingredient, they don’t have to tell you it’s there. Thinking back to our margarine and trans-fats discussion, this could be of concern.

If you want to avoid GMOs, it’ll help to know which ingredients to watch for. Soy and corn oil are largely from GMOs these days.[2] Cotton and canola are also common GE crops. Even brands such as Silk and Kashi took some heat from the non-GMO project last year for being marketed as organic and/or all-natural, while containing GE crops.

Much the same holds true for pesticides in so-named natural foods. The whole grain in your cereal box may well be from the ground, but it also may have been treated with toxic pesticides. In 2011, the Cornucopia Institute created a report entitled, “Cereal Crimes: How “Natural” Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle.” On their cereal “scorecard,” they listed 20 major “natural” cereals scoring less than 275 on a scale from 1-700. The lower the score, the greater is the likelihood of toxic pesticides, GMOs, and hexane content in the food.

The report concludes, “The ‘natural’ label on these products is largely meaningless marketing hype.”

How to Buy Smart

Happily, the business owners and manufacturers who operate with integrity, who love food, and are passionate about quality standards are being recognized. There are brands that have been “verified” by the non-GMO project as completely free, or containing only traces, of GMOs, and cereals shown by the Cornucopia Institute to meet true quality standards. I’m a huge proponent of picking your beloved brand and sticking with them. To learn about the non-GMO project and which brands to buy, and to get the list of cereals that scored well on the Cornucopia Institute’s scorecard, follow the links below. [3][4]

This doesn’t have to be hard. We wish you peace and simplicity in making healthy food choices.


[2] An estimated 94% of soy beans and 88% of corn crops grown in the US in 2011 were GMO/GE

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