Friday, September 26, 2014

Food Label Claims: All Natural

By Cliff Walsh

Reach into your pantry or refrigerator and choose any packaged food item. The most common scenario is that it is plastered with marketing claims like sugar free or immunity boosting. Or perhaps, one of my least favorite terms, all natural. The reason why I dislike it is because it means absolutely nothing and is only used to deceive buyers into believing the food item is healthy.

Many products will carry the natural or all natural slogan on its packaging. Who wouldn't want a natural product? Studies have shown that the majority of people think these claims are similar to organic foods and some actually believe it to be better than organic. Unfortunately, they are mistaken. Organic food certification is a stringent process that entails inspections, supplier checks, and paperwork trails while food manufacturers can use the natural or all natural claim at their own choosing. There is no oversight and no standard definition.

The FDA is in charge of oversight of the use of marketing slogans on food packaging, certainly a difficult task. Unfortunately, despite significant use of the natural or all natural label claims, the group has not defined these terms to standardize their use. The FDA has said it has no problem with these claims if the food products refrain from using food coloring, artificial flavors, or any synthetic additive.

That sounds like a reasonable definition, even though it is not official. The problem is that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), GMOs, partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), and other concerning ingredients are often used in so called natural products. Without a legitimate characterization or government verification, companies can use the natural and all natural claims for whatever they want.

Without a proper definition, food companies have been allowed to define the claim themselves and this has led to some ambiguity at best and unethical behavior at worst. How many scandals have the food and chemical additive industries been involved in over the past few decades? The list is too long to count, making it obvious to most (but seemingly not the FDA), that these companies should not be left to their own devices.

Despite the government's lack of action on these label claims, consumer groups are taking action, which is refreshing to see. Tired of being lied to and exposed to dangerous ingredients, consumers are holding food manufacturers' feet to the fire. Food manufacturers and retailers have had to defend themselves against a host of significant lawsuits, and have lost quite a few. This is a trend that I expect to persist.

Be sure to read the actual food ingredients list and ignore the marketing claim if you haven't fully researched the definition and the loopholes. Less ingredients is typically best. Whole foods are actually the healthiest option, but in the event you choose to eat a processed food, stay away from chemicals you don't understand. We need to be more vigilant about what we allow into your bodies. We cannot rely on the government to protect us from unscrupulous food manufacturers.

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