Beware: Natural Doesn't Mean Healthy!

January 29, 2012

Lately I discovered that there is some misunderstanding on food labeled as “Natural”. The uncertainty comes from the presumption people makes that a natural food is also an healthy food.
I actually had a big discussion about this last night in my apartment as one of my roommates was fairly convinced that a box of cereals she just bought, because labeled as “naturally made” were also healthy.
That’s when I jumped in and said: “Stop right there, “natural” is a word with such a broad meaning that food makers now use it to ingenerate in consumers the belief that what their selling is also healthy, but that might not be the case.” A long discussion followed (which I’m not gonna report here) until we looked at the ingredients list on the box and well, that was the end of the controversy.
Why? Because the “all natural” cereals contained the following ingredients: “Yellow corn meal with added corn bran, Unshulphured molasses, Whole oat flour, Expeller pressed high oleic oil (canola and/or sunflower), Salt, Cinnamon, Natural Flavour, Baking soda, [...].”
I’m not questioning that the aforementioned ingredients are all natural but if you believe, like me, that ultra-processed foods are not “that healthy”, well there you go, you can do the math. I mean that “Expeller pressed high oleic oil” sounds a but shady to me.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the manufacturer is claiming that the cereals are healthy, but by labeling them as natural, it does make them sound as they are in some way “made according to nature” and/or “hearty” and/or “good”; that was at least my impression (and also my roommates one).

The problem with the “natural” label

You if look around next time you’re at grocery store for shopping, you’ll notice that all kinds of products are labeled as natural there days, from meat and sodas to cosmetics and washing powders.
That natural claim can be misleading; for starters not all natural ingredients are the breath of fresh air you’re actually looking for: gelatin is natural but is actually made from the bones of livestock, citric acid is made from fungus fermentation, and so on. To stretch this argument a bit further we can say that a poisonous mushroom is natural but in fact it might kill you.

But the real issue here is that there is no regulation on products that carry the natural label. This means that companies can label their products’ as “natural” without any guidelines.
In the US, the regulations on natural fresh food cover only meat and poultry. The Department of Agriculture can hold a company accountable, but there is no verification whether a food is made from natural ingredients or not.
This means that manufacturers can put the natural label on their products and may ask consumers for a premium price because of that.

Don’t confuse natural with organic

Also this point is crucial: you should never confuse natural products with organic ones. They might sit next to each other on the supermaket’s shelves but they are not the same thing.
The organic label is the real deal (or at least what should be the real deal). In order for a food to carry such label it should meet government standards. A
d hoc appointed inspectors are in charge of verifying that organic manufacturers comply with them at all times. So if you’re really into “natural” shopping you should get legitimate organic products and ignore the rest.

What we can do about it?

My advice is next time you’re at the supermarket and about to grab a product that is labeled as natural look at the ingredients list and check what’s really made of.
I mean, in processed foods like natural soda you might find high-fructose corn syrup (you remember that right?); the same ingredient you’ll find in regular sodas. So why pay the extra money because of the “natural claim”?
You're the one in charge of understanding if the ingredients listed are healthy or not.

The Iron You


  1. This is so true, I actually made that mistake for several I'm much more cautious about food labeled as natural!

  2. It's frustrating how even the healthiest seeming foods can be stretched to make them seem so healthy. But it's true..chips can be natural, but there still nowhere near healthy.

  3. Informative post. Be cautious in choosing a product. Educate oneself to read the label from ingredients to nutritional facts.