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The term “all-natural” is pervasive on the labels of processed, packaged food products. Deceptive phrases used to market the sale of products can convince consumers that the product is healthy, when nothing could be further from the truth. As with many commercial products, labeling information is filled with half-truths and misleading statements, or information is completely omitted.

You may see “all-natural” on a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream carton or even a package of 10-year-old chips or crisps. Although this terminology is not regulated by the FDA, the truthworthiness of the FDA has been come under question from consumers. Many ingredients listed on labels are also indecipherable and understanding them can be puzzling if not impossible. There are also non-certified organic foods on the market which may claim “natural” on the product labels, and yet these types of products are created with some of the most unnatural methods to produce them.

The following is a statement made on the FDA web site regarding the term “natural” on food labels: 

“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural’, we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.  However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.” 

No regulations exist for the term “all-natural”. Yet, do regulations really answer as to whether something is safe to consume? Let’s read more to try to get to the bottom of this question. 

Here are some examples of why “all natural” is not what you think it is:

Kellogg’s Kashi products

Kellogg paid $5 million in response to a 2011 class-action lawsuit that occurred due to the company’s use of the term “All Natural” on some Kashi products. Plaintiffs objected to ingredients such as pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate, and soy oil processed using hexane, a substance occurring in gasoline.

Wendy’s french fries

In 2011 when Wendy’s fast-food chain announced their new “natural cut fries with sea salt”, this product became quite popular.  The potatoes used by Wendy’s most other fast-food chains to make fries undergo at least three unnatural treatments. One is spraying with a chemical called sodium acid pyrophosphate. This keeps the potatoes from turning brown during not one, but two deep-frying sessions – once in the factory, and then again at the restaurant.

Then, dextrose, a corn-derived (think GMO) coating of sugar is used on the fries to help retain color. Finally, to stabilize the frying oil, dimethylpolysiloxane is added. This is a silicone-based chemical food additive which prevents the oil from becoming foamy after repeated fries.

Alegia certified organic fries

MSG is lurking in this product, marketed as certified organic. Kristen of Food Renegade explains how she made the mistake of thinking this product was safe when she needed to make burgers and fries in a pinch for guests coming to her home.

The ingredient that many consumers may overlook? Autolyzed Yeast Extract, named on Truth In Labeling as one of the many altern-names MSG goes by … all legally allowed by the FDA!

Do these french fries stlil seem “all-natural”?

Red’s Natural Foods

Here are the ingredients in a chicken and cheese burrito:

Tortilla (Unbleached Wheat, Flour, Water, Canola Oil, Contains 2% or less of: Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Cultured Wheat Flour, Yeast and Vinegar), White Meat Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics (White Meat Chicken, Water, Rice Starch, Salt), Brown Rice, Pinto Beans, Cheddar Cheese (Pasturized Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt and Enzymes), Mozzarella Cheese (Pasteurized Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt and Enzymes), Green Chile (Green Chili and Citric Acid), Red Bell Peppers, Corn Starch, Water, Tomatoes, Spices, Garlic, Paprika, Sea Salt, Onions, Vinegar, Sugar.

Although a number of companies are making strides to make their products cleaner and with less chemicals, this one still falls short. Chicken meat comes from antibiotic-free birds, the poultry are likely still raised in confinement and  consume a GMO-based feed including soy and corn. There are other problematic ingredients in this product including canola oil which is not a traditional fat and is more than likely from GMO canola plants, pasteurized cheese products which are likely from animals raised in confinement and given antibiotics, hormones, and GM-feed. Other ingredients that raise concern include citric acid, which can be a form of MSG and corn starch, likely sourced from GM farming.

Agave nectar

With strong opposition from sustainable food communities about toxic sweeteners in our food supply like high-fructose corn syrup, agave has hit the store shelves by storm in the last decade, and is heralded as a “natural” sweetener. One of the most glaring problems with other sweeteners coming in to take the place of harmful ones like HFCS is that there is an inherent risk that alternatives are just as hazardous as the ones they replace.

Agave nectar is not a traditional sweetener. It originates from the large, spiky plant referred to sometimes as Blue Agave in the Mexican region. Like high-fructose corn syrup, the end product is a highly-refined sweetener which is concentrated in…fructose. We may be tempted to believe that fructose is natural originates from fruit. However, fructose in fruit doesn’t exist in an isolated form as it does in agave nectar or HFCS.

Dr. Robert Lustig, M.D., the author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease believes that a diet high in fructose is a major contributor of chronic disease including heart disease, obesity, type II diabetes, and cancer.

Metabolism of fructose can also cause increase in triglyceride production, which raises the potential not only for insulin-resistance, leading to the diseases mentioned, which are all components of Metabolic Syndrome. Since the liver expends so much energy metabolizing fructose, this limits its ability to metabolize excess blood glucose, again leading to an increase of blood sugar levels and the need for more insulin. Consuming too much fructose creates a heavy burden on the liver, and then fructose starts to be stored in the fat cells in our bodies.

Read more about the dangers of fructose:

Ramiel Nagel, author of Cure Tooth Decay writes: “…a major concern is the high level of free fructose in agave syrups – much higher than honey and maple syrup. Given what we now now about the deleterious effects of fructose compared to sucrose, honey and maple syrup would seem to be better choices than agave for home cooking.”

Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation says the following about fructose: “We need foods that are whole, not skeletonized and denatured. Sugar, especially sucrose and fructose has been shown to shorten life in numerous animal experiments. Excessive use of sugar is associated with a rise in blood cholesterol, rise in triglycerides, increase in adhesiveness of the blood platelets, increase in blood insulin levels, etc. Numerous studies have positively correlated sugar consumption with heart disease. These results are far more positive than any of the studies linking heart disease and saturated fats.”

Why the term “natural” is misleading: 

In 2009, Dean Foods, the nation’s largest organic dairy producer began to produce a line of yogurts labeled “natural”. The intent was to offer products to consumers that were cheaper than organic. The natural line was launched by its organic brand, Horizon. Communication’s manager, Sara Loveday, stated that Horizon had in effect created its own definition of “natural” for its products and, “To us, it means it’s produced without added hormones, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. ”

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit watchdog group for organic standards commented that this was a good start, “But Dean Foods will not be able to [say] the products are produced without pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and other drugs or genetically modified feed crops, or that the cows are required to graze in pastures rather than confined to factory farm feedlots,” he said.

More on autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed proteins

Two ingredients you will find in many processed products are autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed protein (sometimes appearing as “vegetable”, sometimes “soy”). Both contain MSG. In fact, there are dozens and dozens of other ingredients in foods that don’t bear the name monosodium glutamate, but which are actually MSG or contain MSG.

Reading the research of Dr. Russell Blaylock, M.D., he discusses that substances such as MSG in processed foods are not found naturally-occurring in nature. They are extracted from plants like seaweed or tomatoes which contain free glutamic acid, but are compounded in concentrated amounts. Then, they are engineered in a laboratory which creates an even more potent (and toxic) effect in the food. Its sole reason for existence is not nutrition, but a chemical taste enhancer.

What products contain autolyzed yeast extract?

  • Meats
  • Soups
  • Sauces
  • Salad dressings
  • Cereals
  • Crackers
  • Many foods sold at fast food and other restaurants
  • Many products made from soy such as fake meats, tofu, veggie burgers, etc.

If you eat whole, natural food like seaweed or tomatoes, this is not an issue. The problem is when you take MSG out of these foods – like so many food manufacturers – and synthesize MSG to put it into a highly concentrated form. It then behaves as neurotoxin. Dr. Blaylock’s book,  Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (Amazon affiliation) gives a scientifically-based account about the hazards of glutamates in processed foods.

Many products bearing the words “natural” on the label originate from GM sources

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs are “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.” Many products in our food marketplace come from foods created with genetically-modified organisms, and there are currently no labeling laws in the U.S. to alert consumers about genetically-modified substances.

Can you imagine what would happen if GM products were labeled? You’d walk into a store and the majority of what’s there would bear those labels. Would you willingly buy these products? Some people might, but I believe many would avoid. Unless a product has the Non-GMO label, the chance of genetically-modified organisms being included in that product is high.

From the Institute for Responsible Technology,  a world leader in educating policy makers and consumers about genetically-modified (GM) foods and crops, commercialized GM crops in the United States include:

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the following health issues can arise as a result of consuming GMO foods:

What’s the solution?

When you want real, whole foods without chemicals, additives, preservatives and other health-altering substances is to ask yourself: is this product something my great-grandmother would have eaten? If not, it may be worth avoiding.

Another question to ask: is there a list of ingredients on the product in question that appears indecipherable? If you don’t recognize the ingredients, it may be time to reconsider your purchase.

Does this mean spending hours in the grocery store reading labels to avoid these products?

Actually, there are some simple solutions, and they involve knowing where your food comes from.

One way to start is to take an interest in making foods from scratch at home, and eliminate boxes of bouillon, cans of soup stock, sauce and seasoning mixtures, bottled salad dressing, and other packaged and pre-made foods.

Another way to understand your food is to visit your local farmer’s market and ask questions about how the food is produced.  For example, in raising meat, does the farmer use antibiotics or hormones? Are the animals on pasture or are they fed something supplemental such as grain, soy or corn? Are those supplemental feeds genetically-modified? Does the farmer use pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers to grow his tomatoes, squash, or apples? These are all important questions to consider when sourcing safe and nutritious food.

Many of these products end up on recall lists and the assumption some might make is that by switching to another brand, problems can be avoided. The truth is, most packaged foods and pre-made products are likely to be found on a recall list eventually. Practices used in the industrial food system are typically the reason why food products show up on recall lists in the first place.

Avoid processed foods altogether and buy real, whole, organic foods that are sustainable-produced from local farmers you trust.  Read Questions to Ask Your Farmer to start learning how to source your food locally and understand mindful farming practices and how to ask important questions about how the food you consume is produced.  

Further recommended titles for reading:

Seeds of Deception by Jeffery Smith

The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien