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Does natural = healthy?

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By Pamela Stuppy
August 31, 2008

As evidenced by more and more food labels touting the word "natural," food suppliers have been responding to the trend of consumers looking for ways to improve the nutritional quality of their diets. Consumers are under the impression that foods containing natural ingredients are a better choice. In some cases this may be true, but in others, it may prompt purchases that are not the wisest choice.

Take for example the label of a fried food that says it contains "natural oil." This may in fact be a healthier choice relative to the type of fat it contains, but it says nothing about the total calorie or fat content of the food, which in some cases may be excessive. If this person is trying to watch the calorie intake, it may actually be a poor choice relative to calories.

Another example might be a food that claims it is natural, but contains a day's worth of sodium in one serving — actually a harmful choice if the person has high blood pressure.

Unfortunately for the consumer, the FDA has not formally defined the term "natural." What has been in place has been a policy that says a natural food does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients. What if an ingredient starts out as natural, but undergoes a chemical change during processing. Is it still "natural'? Currently, the word "natural" is not allowed in the ingredient list except for the term "natural flavorings."

When it comes to meat and poultry, the USDA determines the guidelines for "natural." Their definition stipulates — no added artificial flavorings, colors, chemical preservatives, or other artificial/synthetic ingredients. The food also can only be "minimally processed" — the raw product can not be altered to any great extent, but flavor injections are allowed. The USDA definition, however, does not specifically make reference to the use of antibiotics or hormones.

Other terms that may cause confusion as to their nutritional implications are "healthy" and "organic." When it comes to "healthy," the FDA has set guidelines. The product must meet certain criteria for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. It must also contain a specified minimum amount of some nutrients.

The term "organic" is regulated by the USDA and is based more on how the food is grown or produced rather than nutritional value. In the case of livestock, it must be raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones, and with feed that is free of animal products, pesticides, herbicides, or that is genetically modified. When it comes to produce, it must be grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineered or irradiated.

Although consumers may choose organic foods for all of the above reasons, there is no assurance that these foods are any safer (meaning free from microbes) or contain more nutrients than those produced otherwise. One reason it is difficult to establish nutritional differences is that all foods can vary in nutritional value depending on a number of factors — soil variations, when harvested, etc.

Speaking of genetically modified, there are a number of such products in human foods and animal feeds that appear in American markets. Examples of foods that may be genetically modified include — potatoes, soybeans, chicory, squash, sugar beets, alfalfa, corn, canola, flax, papaya, and tomatoes. About one-third of all corn crops and three-fourths of all soybean crops are genetically modified. There is mixed opinion about this trend relative to human health and the environment, with good points on both sides.

So what can consumers looking for healthy choices for their families do? If you are looking for lower intakes of pesticides and other potentially hazardous residues, choosing organic may be a good idea for foods that are more likely to contain them. It is always a good idea relative to food safety, to rinse or wash produce when possible to remove bacteria and other microbes. In many cases, this can remove some of the pesticide and fertilizer residues as well.

Play detective to find out what is meant on the label of foods marked as "natural." Does it match your goals for health? Buying foods that are more basic and less processed often means fewer additives and greater nutritional value. Explore the food labels — check the ingredient lists and nutrition information. Look at how much fat, what type of fat, how much sodium, how many calories for the serving size, how much fiber, how much sugar and where it is coming from (remember that unsweetened fruit and milk products can contain healthy versions of carbohydrate noted on the nutrient label as "sugar").

Keep in mind that all the nutrients in a food are not noted on the label — some foods may contain many other nutrients not typically seen on the label. This is especially true of the "phytonutrients" found in less processed plant-based foods. Be aware of the wording on food labels and make up your own mind as to whether the food is in fact a healthy choice for you and your family.

Pamela Stuppy, MS,RD,LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and Portsmouth. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy.

This article was originally written by Pamela Stuppy for Seacoast Media Group (