Don’t Be Fooled by ‘All Natural’ Food Labels

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Shawn Akers

Some all-natural labels can be misleading, a leading dietician says.

All natural. Organic. Grass-fed. GMO-free. Most Americans—three out of four, by some estimates—read food labels at the grocery store and are increasingly choosing items branded with such claims, believing they are making healthy choices.

But that’s not always the case. In fact, while some food labels—such as “organic”—carry regulatory weight and guarantee what you’re eating is not laden with potentially toxic chemical additives, others aren’t regulated at all.

Foods labeled “all natural,” for instance, don’t have to meet any standard set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Department of Agriculture. 

Yet 73 percent of Americans seek out foods labeled as “natural” when shopping for groceries, according to a new Consumer Reports survey out this week—even though manufacturers can use the term to describe processed items loaded with artificial additives, chemicals, and pesticides. 

“Given this overwhelming consumer confusion, the [FDA] needs to act now to stop the misleading use of the ‘natural’ label,” argues Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “Ideally, the word should be banned from food packaging.” 

Nicolette Pace, a registered dietitian and founder of NutriSource in New York, tells Newsmax Health the “natural” label is only one example of misleading food claims that can leave consumers confused at best, misled at worst.

“Food labels are misleading in the fact that they use terms that don’t actually mean what they say,” she says. “Consumers are confused by food labels because they trust what is written on the package and many feel that the wording suggests that a product is healthier than it really is.”

With that in mind, here are a handful of misleading food labeling terms, along with some consumer tips:

1. Natural or all natural – Foods that carry such labels may or may not contain a lot of artificial colors, flavors or additives. In fact, the FDA has no specific definition for “natural” or “all natural.” The new CR survey found two-thirds of shoppers falsely believe such labels mean that foods are free of pesticides and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and half incorrectly think the claims have been independently verified by the FDA or some other agency. 

Tip: Read the ingredients list to see if “natural” items are in what you’re buying.
2. Organic – Products that carry this label must be made or raised with organic ingredients and certified by the USDA. An organic seal on meat means the animal was fed only 100 percent organic feed and given no antibiotics or growth hormones. But it doesn’t mean all food products are entirely organic; they can contain up to 5 percent artificial ingredients. In addition, foods containing up to 30 percent nonorganic ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.” 

Tip: If the label isn’t clear, ask your grocer or your butcher how the food you’re buying was grown, raised or produced. If you can’t get a straight answer, shop elsewhere.

3. Grass-fed beef – Beef labeled “grass-fed” must have been raised primarily on a diet of grass and natural foods (without antibiotics or grain treated with them), but not entirely. But the label is also allowed for animals fed grains or antibiotics at some point to fatten them up before being butchered.

Tip: Look for a “grass-finished beef” label, which means the animal reached physical maturity on a diet of only grass, and consumed no grain or antibiotic-treated feed. 

4. Cage-free and free-range eggs – Such labels mean your eggs came from chickens that were not caged all of the time. But they can include eggs from hens kept confined in a building (not a cage) or those with access to a small yard they could visit only briefly or occasionally.

Tip: Look for eggs from “pasture-raised” chickens—a USDA designation that means they were raised in farms that allow for 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 square-foot-per-bird) and allowed free access to the outdoors year-round.

5. GMO-free – Federal laws don’t require manufacturers to list genetically modified ingredients on food labels, but some states are moving to require such labeling. GMO techniques allow for higher crop yields of grains, fruits, and vegetables, give them a longer shelf life and make them more resistant to herbicides and pesticides (allowing for greater use of agricultural chemicals).

Tip: Buy products labeled organic or those with the Non-GMO Project label—developed by a nonprofit organization for U.S. and Canadian natural foods retailers.

In addition to these misleading labels, a variety of health-related claims made by food manufacturers don’t always mean what you might think. For example:

6. Zero trans fat – Products that carry this label contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, but are not entirely free of the artery-clogging fats liked to heart disease.

7. Lightly sweetened – FDA guidelines set no standards for this term, which means so-labeled foods can actually still be loaded with natural or artificial sugars.

8. Made with – Foods said to be “made with” real fruit juice, whole grains, or other products may contain very small amounts of the ingredient in question. For instance, veggie chips “made with real vegetables” are often potato chips sprinkled with vegetable powder. Better to go with products with “100 percent fruit juice” and “100 percent whole grains.”

9. Low, light and reduced – These terms imply the food has fewer calories and lower levels of fat, salt or sugar. But in fact they simply mean the product has less of those ingredients than the original variety—and how much less is anyone’s guess.

10. High in fiber – A food labeled high in fiber must provide 5 grams of fiber or more per serving, but FDA regulations don’t specify that it must be a natural source. Choose foods made from whole grains or other more nutritious options.

11. Free – This term implies the product contains none of the ingredient in question. But the truth is “free” actually means “very little,” under FDA guidelines. Such products can contain up to 5 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, or 0.5 grams of sugar—per serving.

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