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The Princeton Longevity Center Medical News

Taking a closer look at “natural” foods

By: Karen McPartland, RD

There are quite a few words and even symbols on food packages that may be sending you the wrong messages!  “Natural” is one word to think twice about.  Even as a dietitian, the words “natural” on a food package catch my eye as I scan the shelves at the grocery store.  But, once I pick up that “natural” food, I look a little closer at the label to see what about it is actually “natural” since this term can sometimes be nutritionally insignificant.  After all, salt, sugar, and cholesterol-raising saturated fat are “natural”, right? 

What does “natural” really mean?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “natural” means that a product does not contain artificial or synthetic ingredients.  For meat and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the words “natural” on a food label mean that the product was minimally processed without adding artificial ingredients like flavors, colors, and preservatives.  Sounds simple, but it’s not that simple!  Take the “natural” quiz below and you may be surprised to learn that “natural” might not be the best choice when it comes to some foods.

A quick “Natural” quiz

  1. You are trying to keep your sodium intake minimal.  You see 2 cans of minestrone soup on the shelf.  One has pictures of fresh vegetables on it and has the words “Natural” in large print across the front of the can.  The other has similar vegetable images, but you don’t see the words “Natural” on the label.  Which one should you choose? 

  • You shouldn’t choose either of them!  Salt is a natural ingredient and from a quick comparison at my local supermarket, I found that “natural” canned soups tend to have the same amount of sodium as “regular” canned soups.  When looking for soups and other food products that are lower in sodium, the better term to look for is “low sodium”, not “natural”.  However, the best option may be to make your own low-sodium soup! 

  • You love ice cream, but your cholesterol is high and your dietitian told you to keep your saturated fat intake as low as possible.  You go to the supermarket in search of an ice cream that may be “okay” for you to eat in moderation.  The ice cream selection at your supermarket is vast, but as your eyes roam the freezer for your favorite flavor, you see a brand with the words “All Natural” across the front of the package.  You are relieved!  But, you ask yourself “does a container of ice cream labeled “all natural” have less cholesterol-raising saturated fat than a container of ice cream without the “natural” label”?    

  • Most likely no!  The saturated fat in ice cream is not artificial, it’s natural.  So, the “all natural” version will tend to have the same amount of saturated fat and calories as a container of ice cream without the “natural” label.  If you are trying to watch your saturated fat intake for cholesterol control, look for words like “low in saturated fat” (no more than one gram per standard serving) or at least “reduced saturated fat” (a minimum of 25 percent lower than the original product).

  • After learning that your brother was diagnosed with colon cancer, you have been paying more attention to your food choices.  You used to eat bacon a few times a week, but you heard that you should avoid red meats and processed meats like bacon to minimize your cancer risk, so recently you have only been eating bacon once every two months.  But, as you walk by the bacon case at the supermarket, you see a package of bacon with the word “Natural” on it.  You immediately pick it up and happily put it in your cart thinking that you can now eat bacon more often since “natural” sounds healthy and healthy is what you want to be!  Was this a good thing to do?
  • No!  Some processed meats like bacon can be considered “natural” because the salt that is used during the smoking or curing process is a naturally occurring ingredient.  However, there is evidence that the smoking, curing or salting process may cause cancer-causing substances to be formed.  These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of certain types of cancer.  So save the bacon for a once in awhile meal and stick with a high-fiber, antioxidant-rich breakfast like plain oatmeal flavored with chopped walnuts and blueberries on most days.    

What to do:

When you see the term “natural” or other healthy-sounding words on a label, inspect the ingredient list.  If you don't recognize the ingredients, chances are you are not dealing with a natural product or a product that you should be eating often.  Make time for food shopping so that you can read labels carefully and even try to do some research on your favorite products by visiting the websites of these products to get more information about what they actually have in them before buying them.     

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