Monday, November 14, 2011

"Natural" and "Organic" Foods - A Tale of Labels

You’ve probably seen commercials for several new brands of “natural” food. Natural food sounds wonderful. The phrase conjures up ideas of clean, healthy food, the way nature does things. Several polls done recently have confirmed that when people hear “natural”, it makes them feel better about food than even the “organic” label. And lots of money is spent on advertising designed to further trick you into thinking that “natural” foods are somehow better for you. But are they?

The truth is, in the United States the FDA has never released even guidelines as to what “natural” should mean on a product label. It means absolutely nothing. If you turn over one of these “natural” products, you might be shocked to find high fructose corn syrup -- not exactly a natural sweetener. The truth is, these “natural products” can contain dyes, preservatives, GMOs, pesticide residues, artificial flavors, and just about anything at all. Products labeled “natural” may contain food that have been treated with fumigants, created using solvents or any other toxic processing aids, and the manufacturer has no obligation to inform you of these unhealthy practices.

Food isn't the only thing that can be "Natural". So can
viruses, bacteria, or anything that contains Carbon.
Most people probably wouldn’t consider factory farmed animals who are raised completely indoors with no real life other than eating food designed to make them bigger to be a “natural” source of food. Yet because there are no real rules to define what “natural” means on a label, these animals are labeled “natural” in your local grocery store.

Through some trick of psychology and loopholes in labelling laws, the “natural” revolution is happening on store shelves. Worse yet, most “natural” products even cost more than the organic alternatives; except all you get if you pay the “natural” premium is a word on the packaging and the same non-organic food inside. Since the FDA has yet to crack down on this deceptive marketing, “natural” companies can simply take advantage of consumer confusion to make a buck.

On the other hand, in the United States and many other countries, Organic (or Biodynamic) labelled foods are a clearly regulated subset of foods that have rules as to what they can and cannot contain. Foods labeled 100% USDA Organic cannot be grown using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. This fact alone is one of the big reasons that organic food is so important. After all, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers have been linked to a wide variety of health and environmental problems.

Organic foods are good for you and the environment. They are guaranteed to be free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and are closely monitored to make sure that the growers comply. There are also indications that organic farms can produce more food per acre and do so using less energy and resources. The “organic” label is meaningful because it is guaranteed to be something. “Natural” labels don’t tell you anything about what’s inside.

As with any label, it is important to check some vital information. Unless some sort of agency or group verifies the terms of any specific label, it is likely just advertising. On organic products, you can easily see this information as “verified by” or “tested by” and the name of a group. You won’t find it on a “natural” product because there are no restrictions or terms to be “natural”. Check our previous post on how to read a product label to find some questions you should ask about any new buzz word you see on a label.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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