Healthy Beginnings

You are what you eat: If a food package says ‘all natural’ – is it?

When buying produce, experts recommend always buying organic. Photo: Cassandra Walker

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the term “natural” displayed on food packaging is to mean that:

“Nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

“However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

What this boils down to is clever marketing strategies that lead consumers to believe foods they are purchasing are more nutritious than they are.

“Most consumers, when they see ‘natural,’ are led to assume it probably means it is probably not genetically modified, doesn’t have hormones or pesticides, or artificial ingredients — which is false,” Kim Mason, nutrition care manager at Carson Tahoe Health, said in an interview this past summer. “It leads to a ton of confusion to the point where now there are a number of lawsuits and the FDA is being petitioned to better reflect what ‘natural’ means.”

Previous FDA regulations are dated back to the 1990s and don’t properly reflect manufacturing procedures used today, Mason said; as such, manufacturers are not necessarily violating regulations because GMOs and certain food treatments — even artificial ingredients — are considered “natural.”

The FDA has petitioned the public to get a sense of what consumers understand the term “natural” to mean. And now more than ever, people are concerned with what they’re eating, where it came from and how it was treated before ending up on their plate.

Just because a label suggests one thing, your research might suggest otherwise. Photo: Shutterstock

“If you’re a person who is opposed to having GMOs and artificial ingredients, the most important thing would be to have additives and processing transparently labeled on the food,” Mason said. “From there, there hasn’t been any real conclusive research that says if you eat GMOs, ‘this will happen’ … (if you eat) hormones, ‘this will happen.’”

Without conclusive research telling us one way or another, Mason says the ultimate decision is a personal one – “do I want to put this in my body, or not?”

On the positive side, there is absolutely a realm of companies that are doing the right thing to offer responsibly sourced, nutritious food. Mainstream labels are adding healthy ingredients to their packaged goods and looking for ways to make their products better.

The key, experts say, is to be diligent in reading the label, researching the company and finding knowledgeable and trustworthy food sources in your area.

New Moon Natural Foods in North Lake Tahoe is among many regional companies that source 100 percent organic produce.

“We offer local, responsibly produced products that do not use any of a list of certain ingredients,” said Andrea Shaw, data manager, wine buyer and procurement manager at New Moon. “Even our wine is organically grown and bio-dynamic, it’s not just an ingredient list we look at. When people shop here they can trust that we’ve vetted that the products and produce are being responsibly sourced, we even have healthy candy and chips that are responsibly produced.”

Shaw said that product knowledge drives New Moon as it does many health-conscious shopping destinations. They research who owns the company of the products they carry, visit the farms where their produce is grown, and have even gotten feet on the ground at the ranches where their ethical grass-fed meats are sourced.

As a parent, Shaw said she wants to feed her son the best foods available, but certainly understands that not everyone has access to affordable, nutrient-dense foods.

“Personally, I think you’re paying on the front end for good foods, and saving on doctor’s bills on the back end,” she said. “When you’re younger, you don’t realize how your food makes you feel.”

When reading labels, Mason says the most important information should be called out. If the manufacturer is trying to do things right, they will indicate, “non-GMO, no pesticides, or no sodium nitrate used in manufacturing” on the label.

Whenever possible, shop organic — it further eliminates things in question as organic foods are more controlled through a set of regulations; it is actually quite difficult to become a certified organic producer.

Further, the more you can eat fresh or non-convenience foods, the healthier you will be.

Cassandra Walker is a Truckee-based writer and contributor to Healthy Beginnings magazine.