When I think of natural foods, I don’t think of items like Cheetos and Capri Sun juice pouches. Ironically, these foods and many others are often labeled as “natural.” So what exactly does the term natural mean? Not much, as it turns out.
When even the US Food and Drug Administration can’t settle on the criteria for what constitutes natural (they spent years trying unsuccessfully to come up with a definition for the term), it leaves the food-labeling door ajar.
The FDA states on their website:
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.
Meanwhile, the FDA has been slow—very slow—to apply its regulatory brakes when it come to the use of hydrogenation in food products.
It wasn’t until the 1950s when partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) gained popularity in the food industry. Partially hydrogenated oils are formed during processing when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. But why does the food industry use PHOs in their food products? PHOs make fats less likely to spoil. That means a longer shelf life for foods containing PHOs, which in turn means more money for the manufacturer.
However, if there is one thing that most people agree upon it is that trans fats are unhealthy. And artificial trans fats are from partially hydrogenated oils. For decades now, there has been much scientific research on the health risks of PHOs. Finally in November 2013 (just five months ago) the FDA issued the following statement:
FDA has made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the major dietary source of trans fat in the processed food supply, are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS. If FDA makes a final determination that partially hydrogenated oils are not GRAS, a company could not use PHOs in food without approval from the FDA, although it may take some time for the change to be fully implemented.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighed in with estimates that eliminating intake of trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils could prevent up to 20,000 cases of coronary heart disease (CHD) and up to 7,000 deaths annually.
Considering that heart disease is America’s number one killer, this potential ban on PHOs could be huge. But there is no reason to expect the slow-moving FDA to do what’s right. We can take significant steps for our health by eliminating vegetable shortening and oils. Consumers also must be diligent in reading ingredient lists to avoid PHOs. Just because a food label reads zero trans fat doesn’t mean it is free of trans fat. By law, a food label can claim zero trans fat if it contains .5 grams or less per serving of trans fats. (Ever wonder why serving sizes are often so small?) If partially hydrogenated oil is on the ingredient list, then the food does contain trans fat.
When it comes to meat, a label of natural is very misleading. The USDA defines “natural” as a food product that has been minimally processed and contains no preservative or artificial ingredients. Since all fresh meat fits this definition, this label is meaningless. And it doesn’t necessarily tell consumers whether or not the meat came from an animal that was treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones or was fed animal by-products.
One of the only labels for meat that has an actual meaning is the term “free range” and that label applies only to chickens. While the term free range or free roaming sounds like it refers to a chicken scratching for bugs in the dirt, it doesn’t. For a chicken to receive the USDA label “free range,” it must only be provided with access to the outdoors. This access to the outdoors doesn’t even have to be grass, and it doesn’t have to be very large. Often this access consists of nothing more than a “run,” which most likely industrial chickens don’t even use since they have never known anything of the great outdoors.
Another way that our food labels are failing us is when it comes to Genetically Engineered (GE) foods. Despite initiatives in more than one state, our government still refuses to require food companies to tell consumers whether or not their food contains genetically modified organisms. As of today, the only way to know if supermarket foods contain GMO ingredients is to buy foods labeled as 100% organic. And when it comes to soy, 94% of the soy grown in the US is a GMO. Besides products like soymilk and tofu, soy appears in everything from mayonnaise to baked goods. In particular, most industrial baked goods are made with vegetable oil (i.e. PHOs) and almost all vegetable oil in the US comes from soy.
Additionally, catchall phrases like “natural and artificial flavors” leave consumers in the dark. In fact, the world of flavor creation is a secret one. In 2009, The New Yorker reported that flavorists –people whose job it is to create flavors and scents—rarely speak about their work outside of their laboratories. Yet their creations are in beverages, chips, breakfast cereals, fruit roll-ups, candy and more.
And if an ingredient can’t be pronounced or wouldn’t be found in your grandmother’s pantry, then chances are it should be avoided. For example, Frito Lay makes a natural line of their world famous Cheetos. And while this product, made with organic cornmeal and expeller-pressed sunflower oil (i.e. no partially hydrogenated oils), is surely an improvement over their original Cheetos (i.e. no orange coloring), it still leaves something to be desired. That something goes by the name of disodium phosphate, which is used as a stabilizer in food processing. However, disodium phosphate is also used for enameling and metal treatment, as a buffer in the dying process and in the production of pesticides. Certainly grandma wouldn’t have that ingredient lying around.
Now the ingredient torula yeast (also found in Natural Cheetos) sounds less threatening. Too bad torula yeast contains free glutamic acid (a.k.a. monosodium glutamate or MSG), known to impair the normal functioning of the endocrine system and to promote overeating.
While avoiding the pitfalls of our modern food system can be overwhelming, the effort is worthwhile. There are too many hidden ingredients, deceiving labels, and lethargic regulatory agencies for consumers to not educate themselves about dangers lurking on the aisle of the supermarket.