Why “Natural” Doesn’t Always Mean “Healthy”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

A line known by lovers everywhere – a rose is a rose by any name. But does the same thing apply to food? Is a food named “natural” the same as a food named “organic” or the same as a food with neither label? What is in a name, anyway? 

Naturally Confusing

We’ve done a previous blog post covering these labels. The “Certified Organic” label is regulated by the FDA; to qualify for “Organic,” a food must be produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. The “Natural” label, on the other hand, has no standard definition from the FDA. It is loosely defined as being food that does not contain any added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The only exception to this is for natural meat, poultry, and egg products. These products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients; however, there are no standards for farm practices of the animals in question, which can be something worth considering.

How About Healthy?

There are no strict definitions to determine whether a given food is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” the answers are usually dependent on the person asking the question. There are broader definitions wrapped up in this question; however, if the food you’re eating improves your well-being and gives you the nutritional benefits that your body needs, then it’s healthy for you.

But many people, even nutritionally savvy people, can fall victim to a phenomenon known as the “health halo”. People tend to underestimate the number of calories of a given meal if one or more of the components of the meal is labeled with a health buzzword such as “Natural”. This halo effect can affect our choices in what and how much we eat. Believing that one’s meal is healthier can lead people to eat bigger helpings or add less “healthy” things (such as a soda or a dessert) to each meal, which can lead people to consume more calories, artificial sugars, and fat than they otherwise would have.

Natural Disasters?

So how can you hide from the health halo and see if a “natural” food has hidden devil horns? The same way you’d treat any other food – check the nutrition label and ingredients list. Fresh foods will always be best, regardless of label, but checking the labels on “Natural” foods will tell you if there are secret pitfalls that lay in wait behind the label. “Natural” foods may not contain artificial or synthetic substances, but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy if they contain high amounts of fat and/or sugar. 

In that case, that which we call a soda, by any other name is just as sweet.

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