‘Natural’ foods are not always what they claim to be

Misleading food labels

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - When it comes to our food, terms like “natural,” “farm-fresh” and “organic” are often tossed around. But what does it really mean and are the foods with these labels really healthier for you? Food experts say be aware because it doesn’t always mean what you think.

In a study by ingredients manufacturer GNT Foods, 64% of consumers associated the word “natural” with “healthy.” A Consumer Reports survey found that 59% of those polled check for a “natural” label when shopping for food. But there’s no clear definition on what counts as “natural” food.

The Food and Drug Administration has no guidelines for the use of the term ''natural.” Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat and poultry, says a product is “natural” if it contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. This means animals raised with antibiotics and hormones can still fall under the “natural” category, as can Cheetos and Skippy peanut butter.

The USDA is responsible for regulating labeling for meat and poultry. The department says there’s only one regulated definition for “natural.” It means the product was minimally processed with no artificial ingredients or preservatives, but it still can contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other similar chemicals. Therefore, a manufacturer can make the claim “natural” even when a product contains artificial ingredients.

Executive director of the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach, Joseph Bonaparte, says the “natural” labeling is often used as a marketing tactic by major manufacturers. Bonaparte says it’s important to always read the labels on the back.

“If there’s stuff on there you can’t pronounce and don’t have a clue what it is, put it back, get something with a much shorter list of ingredients," said Bonaparte.

Without any formal regulation it’s up to the consumers to trust manufacturers, and that’s where the confusion comes in. Experts say watch out for wording like “naturally flavored”, “naturally brewed” or “made with natural ingredients” because there could be a list of ingredients on the back of the packaging you might not want to consume.

“Read the label, look for things that not normally would be inside a chicken or broccoli," said Bonaparte.

These “natural” products aren’t the only labels to go virtually unregulated. Terms like “lightly sweetened," “low sodium” and "farm-fresh” are also more marketing strategies.

The USDA regulates “organic” product labels much more thoroughly than other product labels. So if you are trying to go that route, make sure you pay attention to the USDA organic seal on your product.

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