Today, more consumers than ever are seeking to incorporate more healthy, quality food into their diet. Unfortunately, our confusing food labeling laws mean that shopping for these foods isn’t always an easy task. Of all the terms that you might see on food labels or packages, only some are regulated (meaning that the food in question must meet specific standards in order to display that label). Many other terms have no official definition. Unfortunately, some food brands take advantage of this lack of clarity and apply misleading labels to their products, which don’t actually convey any meaningful or verifiable information, purely for marketing purposes.
One of the biggest ones in this regard, as we’ve discussed before, is the term “natural.” When it comes to labels on the vast majority of foods, the US Food and Drug Administration does not have a formal definition for “natural,” nor does it regulate the use of the term. As a result, the interpretation of what “natural” means is generally left up to the food manufacturers themselves who, as you might imagine, have an interest in making their products look as healthy and appealing as possible, regardless of how “natural” they actually are.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t trust any food that has a “natural” label, only that you might have to dig a little deeper to find out whether the natural food on the shelf at your local grocery store really is the healthier choice you’re seeking. In order to get to the bottom of that “natural” label, you should keep the following tips in mind the next time you’re shopping.
1. Look at how the “natural” label is used.
If you’re looking at a packaged food that features some kind of “natural” label, the first thing you need to do is to check out exactly how that label is being used. In order to appeal to consumers, some companies choose to include words such as “natural,” “all natural,” or “nature” in the product’s brand name or slogan. However, this can be misleading, as it doesn’t have anything to do with the ingredients that the food contains or the way in which it was processed. It’s also important to know how to distinguish between similar phrases with different meanings. For example, the phrases “made with natural ingredients” and “100% natural” might seem to be making the same claim, but only the latter phrase is saying that natural ingredients are used exclusively.
2. Read the ingredient list and nutritional facts.
Learning how to navigate the list of ingredients and the nutritional information displayed on food packaging is a helpful way to move beyond marketing jargon and into the world of facts. It’s also the only way to really gauge how healthy the food is. Remember that even foods that are made with genuinely natural ingredients may still have high amounts of fat, sugar, or sodium—all of which are natural rather than artificial ingredients—so the claim that a food is natural does not necessarily mean it’s good for you. To ensure that your food contains the nutritional value that you want and expect, you should take the time to check out nutrition fact labels when you’re shopping.
3. Understand that “natural” and “organic” are not the same.
Some consumers mistakenly equate “natural” with “healthy,” while others equate “natural” with “organic.” But again, while they appear to be sending a similar message, the two terms are not the same. Foods labeled as organic must comply with specific regulations set by the US Department of Agriculture, which is concerned with aspects such as animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and processing and production methods. While the “natural” label may sound like a sustainable term, it does not have any association with how food was raised, produced, or processed.
4. Know what natural means when applied to different products.
When it comes to using “natural” on food labels, there is one category of products where the term is somewhat regulated: meat and poultry. These foods (including eggs) fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA rather than the FDA, which accounts for the regulatory differences. According to the USDA’s definition, meat and poultry products labeled as “natural” must not contain any artificial ingredients or added colors, and must have undergone minimal processing (in other words, the processing cannot have fundamentally altered the meat product). In addition, any “natural” meat or poultry label must explain what “natural” means for that specific product.
5. Think about where you get your food.
If choosing healthy foods that are sustainably produced is important to you, you might want to think not just about how your food is labeled, but also about where it comes from. For example, shopping at farmer’s markets or joining a community-supported agriculture program can be a great way to obtain fresh, locally grown food that is generally very healthy and follows sustainable production practices, without having to worry about navigating confusing labels.