If you think a food is "all natural" just because the label says it is, think again. So which foods really aren't as natural as they claim they are?
When it comes to ice cream, as reported by Change.org, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has outed Ben & Jerry's as having ingredients that are hardly natural, but Edy/Dreyers, Breyers, and Turkey Hill do, too.
"And it's not just ice-cream makers who mislead consumers with an 'all natural' label," Change.org said.
"Food products from cookies to yogurts to sauces to cereals come with glowing, 'all natural' labels, but actually contain ingredients that are decidedly man-made in a weird science-type of way."
While CSPI has asked Ben & Jerry's to remove the "all natural" from their labels, Change.org has gone one step further, with an online petition that it's asking visitors to sign.
Ben & Jerry's ice cream was recently singled out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for listing "all-natural" on their labels, even when the product contained ingredients like corn syrup and maltodextrin, which are not natural.
The company responded quickly and decided to voluntarily remove the all-natural label from ice creams that contain processed or artificial ingredients, but many other manufacturers have not followed suit.
The news likely came as a surprise to many Ben & Jerry's devotees, however, as they're a company with a decidedly green and natural image.
Even "Green" and "Natural" Companies Use Highly Processed Ingredients
In all fairness, Ben & Jerry's is leaps and bounds ahead of other companies in terms of its corporate responsibility. They support family farmers, make their containers from paper that comes from sustainably managed forests, and get all their milk from dairies that have pledged not to inject their cows with Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH).
Plus, most people know when picking up a pint of Ben & Jerry's that it's meant to be a treat, not a health food (and with upwards of 16 grams of sugar per serving, it's more like a health disaster). Still, that doesn't change the fact that they were passing their ice cream off as all-natural when at least 36 of their flavors are not.
It just goes to show you that just as you can't judge a book by its cover, you often cannot judge a food solely based on its label claims. Even Ben & Jerry's, which is again one of the more forward-thinking companies out there, is owned by parent company Unilever, a food giant that also sells margarine and MSG-ridden bouillons.
So you've got to be a bit of a sleuth when it comes to deciphering what food labels really mean … especially if you value your health.
The FDA Does Not Check Food Label Accuracy
Food labels fall very closely into the realm of "anything goes" in the food-processing world. While the FDA does check food labels, they only check to see whether or not the Nutrition Facts panel is present, rather than whether or not it is true and accurate.
They do not look for deceptive "0 trans-fat" claims and misleading "made with real fruit" or "all natural" statements.
The FDA estimates that roughly one out of every 10 food product labels contain inaccuracies. Additionally, you need to be aware of the fact that a food label must be more than 20 percent off in order for it to violate federal law, and government food labs have a 10 percent margin of error.
This means that an item labeled as having 400 calories can legally have up to 480 calories, and the 10 percent margin of error can bring it up to over 500.
Likewise, blueberry muffins can be called "blueberry muffins" even if they do not contain actual blueberries, but rather artificial blueberry-flavored bits. Other products that list milk on their label may actually contain non-fat powdered milk, palm oil, sugar and additives -- the chemical "equivalent" of milk -- instead.
This is true even when a food claims to be "all natural" …
What Does an "All Natural" Label Claim Really Mean?
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Zip.
The natural food label on a processed food has no standard definition and really no meaning at all. The term is only regulated on meat and poultry, for which an item labeled natural may not contain any artificial flavors, colors or chemical preservatives.
But in the processed food arena, a "natural" product can be virtually anything -- genetically modified, full of pesticides, made with corn syrup, additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients. Most are also heavily processed.
It is because of this very vagueness that 7-Up is able to claim it's "100% natural" and still be within its legal rights. It's also due to this misleading nature that many consumers are fooled into buying foods labeled as "natural" in the belief they're better for their health, when in reality they can be complete junk.
But you can expect that food manufacturers will continue to use natural label claims for as long as possible. Products labeled as "natural" or "sustainable" account for $50 billion annually, or 8 percent of total retail grocery sales, so don't expect them to disappear from your grocery store anytime soon.
How to Choose High-Quality Foods for You and Your Family
Processed foods containing cheap, chemical-laden ingredients will eventually take their toll on your body, and you'll pay for your dietary choices with both your quality of life and your pocketbook when you get ill.
As I'm fond of reminding you, 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods, which is a disaster for your health even if you're buying "natural" processed foods.
Just because someone slaps a "natural" label on a food product, that label does not somehow magically transform a junk food into a health food. "All-natural" processed foods -- ice cream, potato chips, soda, etc. -- are just as detrimental to your health as conventional processed foods.
How healthy can you really be if you're routinely ingesting pesticides, antibiotics, hormone-disrupting chemicals, genetically modified organisms, chemical additives, colors and preservatives, and an untold amount of other chemically-derived byproducts and toxins that may or may not claim to be "natural" on their labels?
Cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes -- all modern plagues that have a dietary component -- are spreading and increasing in occurrence and severity with each passing year. The health statistics speak for themselves.
So if a "natural" label claim is no measure of food quality, then what is?
First and foremost, you'll want to focus your purchases on items that have no labels at all … namely fresh vegetables, preferably organic and locally grown. Grass-fed, organic meats and raw dairy products are also staples your family can safely invest in.
Next, whether you're shopping at a supermarket or a farmer's market, here are the signs of a high-quality, healthy food:
- It's grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers (organic foods fit this description, but so do some non-organic foods)
- It's not genetically modified. You can get your free GMO shopping guide here.
- It contains no added growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs
- It does not contain artificial anything, nor any preservatives
- It is a whole food, and this means it will not have a long list of ingredients (for instance, high-quality almond butter should contain almonds (preferably raw) and maybe sea salt -- no added oils, sugars, etc.)
- It is fresh (if you have to choose between wilted organic produce or fresh local conventional produce, the latter is the better option)
- It did not come from a factory farm
- It is grown with the laws of nature in mind (meaning animals are fed their native diets, not a mix of grains and animal byproducts, and have free-range access to the outdoors)
- It is grown in a sustainable way (using minimal amounts of water, protecting the soil from burnout, and turning animal wastes into natural fertilizers instead of environmental pollutants)
By educating yourself on what 'healthy food' really is, you'll easily be able to spot gimmicks like the word "natural" on processed foods, allowing you to put your family's food money toward purchases that will not only satisfy your appetites but also nourish your health.