Hey, if it’s on the package, it must be OK to eat, right?

Wrong.

Just because products are advertised as all-natural, 100-percent natural, low fat, no sugar added, or even organic doesn’t mean that they are good for you. In fact, many of these “health foods” have caused Americans’ health and the American health care system to rank at the bottom of virtually every study, including a survey conducted in the past decade. (1, 2, 3)

Until recently, many Americans were quite lazy in determining whether or not the foods they eat are harmful to their bodies, and they have historically relied on scanning food labels instead of diving deep into the nitty-gritty details.

Thankfully, the tides seem to be changing …

2014 Food Labels Survey

The most recent Food Labels Survey conducted by the Consumer Report® National Research Center highlights that an important paradigm shift in how Americans are now reading food labels. (4)

  • 66 percent look for the distinction “locally grown.”
  • 59 percent look for “natural.”
  • 50 percent look for “no artificial growth hormones.”
  • 49 percent look for “pesticide-free.”
  • 49 percent look for “organic.”
  • 48 percent look for “no artificial ingredients.”
  • 40 percent look for “non-GMO.”
  • 39 percent look for “no antibiotics.”
  • 36 percent look for “certified humane.”
  • 31 percent look for “fair trade.”

We can thank public service campaigns to increasing this heightened awareness as these prevalence data were not even on the Consumer Report® radar 20 years ago.

It is important to note that although a majority of Americans desire to purchase “all natural” and “organic” products, they are still unsure about what these distinctions really mean. Case in point, according to the survey:

“The majority of consumers think that the natural or organic label on meat and poultry currently means that no artificial ingredients, growth hormones, genetically modified ingredients, or antibiotics were used; an even greater amount of consumers feel that this labeling should indicate this.” (4)

On the one hand, it is encouraging that more Americans are questioning what they put on their plates. On the other, it is quite alarming that the majority believes that “natural” and “organic” are nearly synonymous. The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth.

‘All natural'

Strictly speaking, the only truly “natural” foods in the marketplace are fresh fruits and vegetables and some choice nuts, grains, and legumes that have not been tampered with by humans.

Once a crop has been harvested and manufactured, it is technically not “natural” anymore because it is no longer a pure product of the Earth. Subsequently, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term “natural.”

“However,” in the FDA’s own words, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” (5)

This raises significant eyebrows because the definition of “synthetic substances” is as nebulous as “all-natural.” Essentially, food manufacturers can now slip in ingredients that most health enthusiasts would scoff at, all under the guise of “natural” and it’s legal.

Case in point, it has been reported that the FDA has shockingly accepted high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as an “all-natural” ingredient if it can be confirmed that no synthetic fixing agents came in contact with it during manufacturing. (6). Known to contain mercury, HFCS is, in the words of Mark Hyman, MD:

“An industrial food product and far from “natural” or a naturally occurring substance. It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Carghill would not allow the investigative journalist Michael Pollan to observe it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”(7)

HFCS is just one of many examples of FDA mislabeling practices and raises serious suspicions of the FDA’s accuracy and fidelity in regulating “natural” products.

‘Organic'

On the other hand, the term “organic” is much more rigorously regulated.

In a nutshell, for a food item to be considered organic, it must be produced using methods “that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” (8)

The FDA has helped to further define the varieties of “organic” food: (9)

  • Organic crops – The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.
  • Organic livestock – The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100 percent organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.
  • “Organic” multi-ingredient foods – The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95 percent or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.
  • “Made with Organic” Ingredients – These products contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100 percent organic products.

‘Organic' not all it’s cracked up to be

Before you jump on the organic gravy train it’s important to realize that although a product may be USDA certified organic, it is NOT guaranteed to be:

  • Local – More than 10 percent of organic food is reportedly imported. (10)
  • Chemical or spray-free – Many sources claim that so-called organic produce is actually sprayed with more chemicals than non-organic sources. The loophole is that the spray must be tied to a “naturally-occurring” chemical, which can get into a gray area very quickly. (10)
  • Sustainable – Most organic farms are mega-million dollar operations with the same over-harvesting practices as conventional producers.
  • Or even healthy – This point is important to understand because candy is still candy and deep fried potato chips are still bad for you, regardless if they’re made from organic ingredients or not.

Also, you have to wonder what the extra 5 percent of ingredients in certified “organic” multi-ingredient food items are actually made of. Your guess is as good as anyone’s, but it’s safe to assume they are not pesticide-free and that they do not pass the USDA certified organic sniff test.

Just another reason to purchase local produce from farmers that you know and trust, or better yet, grow your own food. This is the only way to ensure that your food is free from harmful chemicals.