How to Tell a Natural Food by its Label

This week marked some big news in the world of US food labels – the first proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts panel in 20 years. Ingredient lists and nutrition facts (listing the number of calories, macronutrients [carbohydrates, protein, fat] and some vitamins and minerals) are supposed to help consumers – that’s us – make “informed” decisions about the foods we buy.

Unfortunately though, nutrition labels can still be confusing, especially when it comes to numbers and percentages. This is one reason I think we should focus on the ingredient list instead. Another is that food companies take advantage of our uncertainty by using unregulated claims on the rest of the package – ostensibly as shortcuts or signposts to tell us the nature of the product. Some have even gone so far as to seek seals of approval from health-promoting bodies (e.g., Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Health Check) or develop their own front-of-package labelling systems (e.g., ones that look like traffic lights or that highlight certain nutrients within). I believe the better approach is to ignore the numbers and percentages. If you look for real food ingredients – in short, seek out natural foods – you’ll avoid baddies like trans fat and choose nutrient-rich foods without trying.

Of course, the ingredient list can get lost among all the other health claims and jargon splashed across bags and packages. Relative to the highly regulated Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient list, the rest of product packaging is a marketing free-for-all, and food companies are slapping “natural” labels everywhere to pull buyers in.

Why we buy into “natural”

We live in an age where we expect food to be more than food; to enhance our health in some other way beyond nourishing us. We want milk to give us the omega-3 fatty acids normally found in fish and flax but at the same time want to buy into a version of an idyllic past in which no such fancy engineering was necessary.

We love buzzwords like “100% natural”, “fresh”, “sun-ripened” and “pure”. We don’t want cow meat grown in Petri dishes; we want it from a farm where the herds have open access to green grass and sunshine, not in a feedlot pumped full of antibiotics standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement.

When I use the word “natural”, I mean food. Unadulterated, real food. Not what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”; processed food ingredients plumped up and primped to masquerade as the real thing. Food that hasn’t been transformed to the point it’s no longer recognizable.

It also means keeping food simple. If bread can be made from whole-grain flour, water, and yeast, it shouldn’t contain carrot powder or fish oil to artificially boost its nutritional profile.

For food companies, the problem is natural foods aren’t exciting, and they don’t boast a high profit margin. They’re subject to things like spoilage. We like our food to be beautiful, and to look enticing even if it doesn’t taste all that good (red velvet cake is a prime example). Money is made with processed goods where cheap fillers can displace more expensive real-food ingredients.

Cheese packet for Kraft Dinner "Smart"

Cheese packet for Kraft Dinner “Smart”

What does it mean to be natural?

Despite government’s half-hearted attempts to define or at least decide what’s excluded from the term “natural”, it’s clear food companies in the US and Canada are using the term in ways that differ from how you or I would use it. They also skirt around using the word itself by saying things like “No artificial colours” and “No artificial preservatives” on products that contain a slew of artificial ingredients – just not for preservation.

What the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says:

  • “Foods or ingredients of foods submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state should not be described as ‘natural’.”
  • A natural food or ingredient of a food is not expected to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive.
  • A natural food or ingredient of a food does not have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water.

Some of the ways to effect MAXIMUM physical, chemical or biological changes (those are the CFIA’s words) in a food are things like chemical bleaching; chemical curing; decaffeination with chemicals; hormonal action; and chemical synthesis.

Don’t be seduced by label claims like “made with natural ingredients”.  Almost every product can make this claim – hopefully there’s something natural in that package. Even if potatoes are deep-fried in chemically produced hydrogenated oil then doused in a blizzard of artificial flavours, artificial colours and flavour enhancers like MSG, they still started as a potato.

Reference: Canadian Food Inspection Agency Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising.  Chapter 4: Composition, Quality, Quantity and Origin Claims Sections 4.7-4.19, 4.7 Nature, Natural.

Package of oatmeal breakfast biscuits

Oatmeal breakfast biscuits boasting “No artificial flavours or colours”

What the US FDA says:

“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.”

Reference: What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?

What the Canadian Oxford Dictionary says:

Natural means:

  • “Not disguised or altered (as by makeup, hair dye etc.)”
  • “Containing no additives, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients (natural foods)”

And “Artificial” means:

  • Produced by human skill or effort rather than originating naturally (an artificial lake; artificial flavours)
  • Formed in imitation of something natural (artificial flowers)

What I say:

My working definition of something “Natural” is a food that’s:

  • Close to its original edible form (e.g., cooking beans doesn’t making them unnatural – it just makes them edible!)
  • Processed minimally without artificial chemicals in ways that don’t change the nature of the food
  • Free from artificial additives or additives produced from unnatural sources

The bottom line

In Canadian and American labeling standards, the term “natural” is loosely defined at best. In practice, it’s even worse. Take a moment next time you’re at the grocery store and see if you can find any artificial products masquerading as natural ones. If you’re feeling bold, snap a photo. I’d love to feature it on the upcoming Natural Disaster Wall of Shame.

References and further reading:

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