If you’ve strayed from the perimeter of your local grocery store, you can’t have missed the endless products screaming at you that they are “natural”. The labels often heavily feature the colour green, which we associate with nature, and may even show images of endless fields in perfect sunsets. Often the packaging will be brown and have a recycled feel – it’s natural after all. Buy it! Buy it!
But what does natural actually mean? If something is natural, it has to be good for you, right? My view of “natural” is something that hasn’t been altered at all and is entirely in its natural state, like an organic banana. A survey last year by the Consumer Reports National Research Centre found that 60% of respondents actively looked out for “natural” labels, with 66% of those people believing it meant the product contained no artificial ingredients, no pesticides and no genetically modified organisms. Surely that’s a pretty reasonable understanding of a “natural” food?
Alarmingly there are no official definitions about what “natural” means on food labels, nor are there any Australian food standards governing how and when the term may be used.
Looking in my local Coles supermarket, I found a Jalna Fat Free Natural Yoghurt, in which the first two ingredients are “Pasteurised Skim Milk and Non-fat milk solids”. I also found a Natural Muesli by The Muesli Company, which contains Preservative 220, rolled oats and dried fruits (processes which surely take the raw ingredients away from their original, natural state?).
Another favourite, is Water Thins Natural Mini Crispbread. The ingredients… Wheat Flour, Cheese Powder [Milk Solids, Cheese Solids (Milk, Salt, Starter Culture, Enzymes), Mineral Salts (339, 331), Salt, Food Acid (330)], Salt, Vegetable Oil, Raising Agents (500), Rye Flavour. Salt? Perhaps the salt is natural? And how about Natural Glace Cherries? Guess what they contain? Cherries (60%), Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Food Acid (330), Natural Flavour, Natural Colour (163), Preservatives [202, 211, 220 (contains sulphites)]. So, I suppose they’re 60% natural…
None of the products I’d found mentioned being organic (which is what I’d consider natural) – and as for processed ingredients, additives, flavourings and preservatives, “natural” seems to be a total farce.
So what’s the answer? Well – as I’ve spoken about before – if it has a label, it’s far less likely to be natural and healthy than something with no label. And if the label makes health claims, you should probably not buy it.
What would you expect a “natural” food label to mean? Do you think there should be more rules about the labels food manufacturers are allowed to put on their products?