Ever been confused by a dodgy claim on a food label? You wouldn’t be the first one. Food manufacturers are very successful in their use of misleading language in order to portray a certain perception of the product they sell. Some terms are so ill-defined that there’s really nothing stopping food manufacturers from including it on their label. ‘Natural’ food is a prime example. What does ‘natural’ mean in terms of the food processing? Where do we draw the line? Leaving these questions unanswered enables food companies to continue to exploit the term, and thus sway consumer choice. If we decide that ‘natural’ is applicable to anything that hasn’t been processed, the term would quickly become obsolete in the food industry. More than three quarters of our energy intake comes from moderately and highly processed foods.Jennifer M Poti, Michelle A Mendez, Shu Wen Ng, Barry M Popkin. Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? Am J Clin Nutr; first published online May 6, 2015 This statistic doesn’t include foods that been minimally processed, such as washed and bagged salad leaves, but still processed nonetheless. How many steps along the production must a food travel before we decide it is unnatural, and no longer a product of the earth? Here’s what some of the world’s biggest food regulation bodies have to say on the issue:
Food Standards Agency (UK)
The FSA defines ‘natural’ in regards to food ingredients as ‘produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.’ This definition would imply that food which has been processed in any way is not natural.
Food and Drug Administration (USA)
The FDA released a statement indicating that they are yet to publish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ however, they generally regard the term to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in or added to the food.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand
The term ‘natural’ is not addressed in any section of the Food Standards Code, nor has a definition been provided.
It’s little wonder there’s so much confusion. To try and unpack the issue, I dug around in my pantry for some examples of products claiming to be ‘natural.’ I didn’t need to look very far.
The word ‘natural’ appeared on this food label a total of eight times. Clearly, being ‘natural’ is a big driving influence which the company wishes to portray. The ingredients list states that the product contains ‘just natural unhulled sesame seeds; no added oil, salt or sugar.’ I myself was unaware that ingredients would require descriptive words, or indeed a statement of ingredients that the food doesn’t contain. To be fair, as far as processed
foods go, tahini does come close to the common perception of ‘natural.’ According the Mayver’s website, the production process simply involves toasting, grinding, blending and then bottling of sesame seeds. However, I would argue that companies such as Mayver’s would benefit from regulating the use of the term, for the reason that when the term is used on products that don’t seem natural at all, the term loses its meaning very quickly.
Planet Food 100% Whey Protein Isolate
The label on this tub of protein powder claims that it has a ‘natural flavour,’ and that the product is a ‘natural, high-quality protein.’ It seems quite bizarre that something that comes in a powdered form; something that is so far removed from how it actually occurs in nature, could be flagged as ‘natural.’ The process of making protein powder is very elaborate and convoluted, involving a number of steps including pasteurisation, ultrafiltration, micro filtration and spray-drying. This information of course has conveniently been omitted from the label, the company instead opting for the more appealing, ‘natural’ impression. Claiming that the product has a ‘natural flavour’ has roughly the same amount of meaning as claiming that a food ‘tastes like chicken.’ And yet, the company currently has every right to use this language in their effort to manipulate consumers and form a perception of their product that is entirely misleading.
These Stevia sachets famously claim to be 100% natural. I would be fascinated to know how Hermesetas came to this conclusion, given that the actual ingredients of the product are as follows: modified starch, erythritol and steviol glycosides. In other words: chemically altered starch, a sugar alcohol and finally, in the smallest concentration, sweetening components from stevia extract. I find it difficult to accept that any product which requires the warning ‘excess consumption may have a laxative effect’ could be flagged as ‘natural.’ If my interpretation is correct, the use of the term ‘natural’ on this product explicitly defies the definition provided by the FSA; it certainly is not a product of nature alone, and certainly has been interfered with by man.
So what’s the big deal? Why does it matter if a food company decides that their product should carry the ‘natural’ badge? The problem arises when consumers are influenced by misleading information when making food choices. The problem arises when people would choose a processed snack food over fresh produce because one is labelled ‘natural’ and one is not. As a population, we are only comfortable with the term at a superficial level, but we cannot definitively distinguish between natural and unnatural products at this stage. We happily associate ‘natural’ foods as being good for you, but find it difficult to explain why. When food companies exploit the lack of regulation of the term, consumers are left with the task of deciphering the real meaning behind the marketing ploy. Consumers need the support to be able to make informed decisions. I would call on FSANZ to address the issue and come up with an acceptable definition that aligns with common perceptions. It’s hard enough making sense of food labels as it is.
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|1.||⇪||Jennifer M Poti, Michelle A Mendez, Shu Wen Ng, Barry M Popkin. Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? Am J Clin Nutr; first published online May 6, 2015|