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Meaning of Natural Label

January 15, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Oftentimes, when I write you regarding healthy habits, I talk a lot about eating natural foods.

But just what does that mean? And how can you do it?

When I use the term, I mean foods that haven’t been tampered with. No antibiotics in meat. No harmful pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. No GMOs, or other products where we’ve used some funny business.

I also mean you should avoid additives in the foods themselves—nothing processed, no preservatives, no human-designed substitutes like high fructose corn syrup.

Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t agree.

While things like food coloring and preservatives get flagged, almost anything else can get a “natural” label slapped on it.

The FDA steps in

Today, food with specific additives like food coloring or preservatives couldn’t be labeled “natural.”

But everything else is fair game.

Antibiotics fed to cows? You can still call that natural. Harmful pesticides used on crops? Same thing. GMOs? According to labeling rules, they’re as natural as a cold spring.

In truth, all sorts of unnatural things happen to our “natural” food. A lot of those things are measurably bad for you. Pesticides and herbicides, for instance, have conclusively been linked to upticks in cancer rates.

Still others—like GMOs—haven’t been properly studied yet. Frankly, we don’t know what they do to us yet.

Nonetheless, GMOs are everywhere—something like 90% of soybeans are GMO, for instance. And there’s no way to know which is which.

Now, thanks to a groundswell of citizen concern, the FDA is finally stepping in. Two months ago, the FDA opened up to comment the subject of “natural” foods—defining what they are, and placing restrictions on what can and cannot call itself natural.

This has been a long time coming. Indeed, we’re very overdue for this sort of definition.

And while the FDA has been dragging its feet, it’s finally listening to the will of the people, and getting involved in regulating this oft-abused term.

Four things you can do to eat naturally

  1. Avoid anything processed

This one is clear, so I won’t spend much time on it. Just know that anything processed has made use of preservatives and other chemicals to make food palatable.

Indeed—a large part of what we eat is because of the military. During WWII, the armed services were asking companies to come up with ways to create foods that could last a long time on the battlefield.

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The same need is how we first invented canned foods during the Napoleonic Wars.

Canning is great, but the preservatives we use to keep bread fresh for months is not. Those preservatives are literally pickling us from the inside, and are largely responsible for the increased cancer rates we see in the developed world.

  1. Don’t trust the label

As you’ve just heard, foods labeled “natural” can be anything but. In truth, it’s hard to know what is a healthy, natural food today. Even the Amish use industrialized farming practices, like giving cows antibiotics to prevent infections when they’re kept in close proximity.

Just because a package says the food is natural, doesn’t make it so. And just because it came fresh from a farm, doesn’t mean that farm wasn’t using harmful chemicals to up production.

Buy organic meats as often as you can, and use a simple produce wash on all of your vegetables, no matter their source.

  1. Buy small, buy local

There are no guarantees in this game, but your best bet is to buy from small, local farmers.

If you have a local farmer’s market, your odds of getting food that hasn’t been tampered with increases.

Especially if that farmer’s market is full of the actual farmers working the land, and not distributors looking for an opportunity to charge more, thanks to the health halo.

  1. Get involved

As I mentioned, the FDA is currently mulling over how to handle “natural” labeling.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of powerful interests on the other side. The industrial food complex doesn’t want to compete against truly natural foods.

That’s why it’s important we make sure our voices are heard. Politicians will always listen to constituents, once they get involved.

So get involved. Call or write to your local politicians and congress people. Let them know that you want a clear definition of what natural is—and make sure they know that doesn’t just mean no preservatives.

Pesticides and herbicides can do at least as much harm.

Until we have a clear definition of natural foods, we’re really just making our best guess.

If this is an issue that you care about—and we all should care about it—then let your voice be heard. Moneyed interests rule the game—until we all speak out against them.

Then, it’s the voters that matter. Let your political representatives know, this matters to you.

Once they know that, it will matter to them as well. And we’ll be one step closer to truly controlling what goes into our bodies.

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