all natural labels

Walking down the aisles of a grocery store we’re bombarded with healthy claims: “All Natural”, “May reduce cholesterol”, “20% of your daily fiber”, “No artificial flavors” – AHHH! What does all this mean? I am relieved to eat a minimal amount of packaged goods, because I think the claims would overwhelm me.  However, from a learning perspective, I love reading the labels and understanding what legitimates the health claims. For example, when a brand of margarine tries to set itself apart with “Cholesterol Free” or “100% less cholesterol than butter”, the claim is true because cholesterol can only come from animal products. So remember this next time you are thinking of paying a mark up for a margarine product over another – any margarine you buy is cholesterol free and that’s not a reason to pay more.

Not all claims are as easy to understand. “All Natural” is a tricky one for me to digest (pun intended). Compared to the pain-staking (albeit imperfect) process a product goes through to earn the label “Organic” there is little documentation needed to meet the “All Natural” label requirement. Thus far, the only requirements are that a product is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added colors. Please don’t doubt that these are easy guidelines to bend…especially if you have the budget of Kraft, Dole, or Perdue. So, what’s the solution?

  1. Determine what natural means to you. For me it’s a whole food (apple, oats, almonds, honey) and if that collection of ingredients makes another food than I will accept it as natural. A “natural flavor” still goes through a chemical lab process – vanilla or almond extract doesn’t actually come from the tree it has to be processed. In short, draw your own line.
  2. Read the ingredient label – if there’s a bunch of words you can’t recognize its not natural (excluding the bacteria found in yogurt).
  3. If you do recognize all the ingredients – ask yourself why the company need to put an advertisement on the product in the first place? For Kraft’s All Natural Cheese product line the ingredients list looks fine, but what do we know about the cows that the milk (cheese) came from? Are they grass-fed? Raised with artificial hormones? The All Natural label would not address either concern – it only refers to how the cheese was processed.
  4. If it’s a dairy product (yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese) I think organic is worth the money over All Natural.
  5. If its something you buy every week, say a cereal, spend 5 minutes online one day and just see what you’re putting in your body. What are people saying about the product? What kind of sugars, wheat, and oils are being used?

I think the most important thing to remember is not whether a product is all natural but what nutritional value you are trying to get from that product. Natural, just like “low-fat” “fat-free” or “cholesterol-free” doesn’t equal healthy. For example, in place of the apple juice labeled as “All Natural” with unknown amounts of added sugars, just eat an apple! The more whole foods you eat the less you have to worry about labels and claims.