What does "natural" mean on a food package?


Today’s article in the New York Times on functional foods got me thinking about the word “natural” on so many food packages. Just yesterday a friend was snacking on a bag of pretzels flavored as “everything” bagels…they were shaped like tiny little bagels and did look like mini, mini-everything bagels. The package contained the word “natural” in several different places (including “naturally delicious” which of course is a matter of opinion). In reading the ingredient list there were many ingredients, including food additives used as preservatives, coloring, and flavor. What is “natural” about that?

In addition to many of the functional food health claims discussed in the NY Times article, consumers should be leery of the “natural” buzzword, too. One dictionary definition of natural is “present in or produced in nature; not artificial.” Hardly describes pretzel bagels. Before the nutrition labeling act, such practices as calling an oil “light” because it was lighter in color, was widespread. The NLEA was supposed to make food labels truthful and easy to understand but health claim creep has overtaken food packaging. Marketing is often way ahead of science and it shouldn’t take a PhD in nutrition to figure out the meaning of all of these claims (or a magnifying glass to read the fine, fine print).

I suggested to my friend a really natural snack…nuts, natural, unsalted, delicious nuts. A handful of walnuts, almonds or pistachios will satisfy hunger, provide some protein, and lots of other good-for-you nutrients like fiber and Vitamin E. So next time you get the urge to snack, watch out for the “natural” claims and go for something really natural.