All natural – the confusing label

I’ve noticed an uptick in “natural” offerings at grocery stores and the like the past 5 years. Have you?

I knew people years ago who were on the organic train long before it became mainstream. Nowadays, where I live, organic is just as accessible as non-organic. And farm stands (my favorite) abound! 

But enter into the picture, “natural” labeling. No matter what section I’m perusing in a store, “natural” is steadfastly plastered across food labels. Many of these products carrying that label don’t make sense to me to be “natural” (take potato chips for example). Seems ironic to me. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “natural” (adj.) as “found in nature and not involving anything made or done by people.” Simply put, natural could be termed “not enhanced” or “not artificial.”

Consumer Reports really hits the nail on the head with its article: “Organic” chicken is different than “Antibiotic-free” and “Natural” means nothing (Dec. 2013).*

Let’s take one of my favorite proteins as an example while we navigate through the labeling requirements and health benefits, or lack thereof.

Many assume when a chicken product is labeled “natural” it means the chickens have not received antibiotics or consumed feed containing GMOs. Without knowing what I do at this point, I’d say natural meant super healthy, clean as can be. Many people have expressed to me that they think labels of “natural” and “organic” are interchangeable. They are not. Here’s why.

“Natural”: One of “the most misleading label[s]”* of the bunch. “The only substantial requirement for ‘natural’ chicken breasts is that they contain no artificial ingredients, but even then there is no process to verify this claim.”*

Since we’re here, let’s go a little further and introduce “Free-range” – which only means the chickens had some sort of access to the outside. No standards are set for outdoor areas and inspections are not required for companies to use this label on products.

“No antibiotics” and “No hormones” are troublesome as well, as there are no oversight controls. While using a “No antibiotics” label is great and it’s assumed the chickens have never been given antibiotics, there is no inspection process before a company can use the label. “No hormones” just means “chicken” as this labeling can be used on all conventionally raised chickens in the U.S.

With how paramount health, chronic illness, and disease are today (and projections for the future), it’s baffling how minimal mandates and inspections are. It doesn’t make sense to me to have myriad confusing labels that can easily be misinterpreted and utilize terminology that doesn’t align with the true meaning. We know the link between food and health is an important one and plays a pivotal role.

The healthy roads all lead back to buying “USDA Organic.”  This means that the chickens have not only consumed a vegetarian diet, but there are no genetically modified ingredients or toxic synthetic pesticides along their journey.

Interesting fact: “Chickens can be provided with antibiotics during their first day of life; the drug-free rule kicks in the day after the shell breaks open.”*

For a product to be labeled “USDA Organic,” annual inspections are mandatory; there are mandates that access to the outdoors be provided, but highly specific things (like size of outdoor area, door size between inside/outside, and the duration of time chickens go outside) are not mandated.

Organic meats can come with a heftier price tag. If you can afford it, you’re guaranteed a set of standards and better clarity on what you are consuming. Not only that, but “USDA Organic” has been linked to lesser likelihood of contamination and illness.

The USDA informs that when labeled “USDA Organic” it means the foods “are grown and processed according to federal guidelines, among many factors are soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.”**

“Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”**

Recall when I provided details to the “dirty dozen?” If buying organic isn’t feasible across the board but you have the ability to pick and choose where you spend a little more, here’s the link as a refresher:

Even when I purchase “pre-washed” veggies or fruits, it’s a practice of mine to re-wash before I cook with them. From harvest time, many hands have touched what you are buying and consuming – another wash just adds an extra layer of protection for you and your household.

The more I’ve learned over the years, the more mindful and discerning I’ve become. What I buy for my family and what my loved ones buy, must come from certain countries if not sourced from the US. These include countries that have similar standards to “USDA Organic.” It’s disturbing how certain foods in sanitary lacking countries have been fertilized by sewage sludge. That’s not what anyone wants to think about when chowing down on a salad, but seriously – that’s the reality of it. shared that “one study found that organic chicken contained 38% more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Eating organic chicken may also lower your food-poisoning risk.”*** (A 2010 study resulted in showing that “fewer than 6% of organic birds were infected with salmonella, compared with almost 39% of conventional ones.”***)

It gets confusing, I know. When most of us are out shopping for the week or for a meal, our time is limited when selecting our meat, dairy, veggies, and other staples.

I also have my go-to brands. So while it may be a bit of an investment of time initially, you’ll find your rhythm and shopping won’t always consume as much time.

I hope this snippet of information provides you with a better understanding and works as a gateway to choosing whatever labeling you find best suits your needs.

If you so wish, it’s never too late to start changing your purchasing habits.




Coming next: Expert says many options available to manage back pain

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