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Are “natural” ingredients really natural?

March 21, 2022 • read

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Are “natural” ingredients really natural?

Knowing what’s in the food that you eat is increasingly important to consumers. Chances are that labelling is key to how you assess a product’s healthfulness. Seeing the word “natural” on a label might make you feel better about buying the product.

Maybe it conjures up images of farming, vegetables growing in the sun, or happy animals milling around. It sounds healthy — maybe even good for the planet. But what does the term “natural” actually mean on a label? And is it really synonymous with healthy? Here’s what you need to know.

What does all-natural on a food label/ingredient list mean?

Labelling something as natural might make you think that it’s more nutritious, but that’s not the case. In actuality, it simply means that the product meets the following three criteria:

1. It doesn’t contain added vitamins, mineral nutrients, artificial flavouring, or food additives.

2. None of its components have been removed or changed significantly. Removing water or caffeine, however, like in decaffeinated tea or dried fruit, is okay.

3. It isn’t processed. This means it can’t have gone through certain processes that significantly alter its chemical, biological, or physical structure. This last measure can be confusing. That’s because food can be called natural, for example, if it’s been canned, sterilized, extracted, or even treated with toxic gas, but not if it’s been mechanically deboned, decaffeinated chemically, or tenderized with a chemical additive.

How are ingredients on food/beverage products verified?

In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for regulating food labels. CFIA creates guidelines that dictate what claims producers are allowed to make about their food products.

CFIA guidelines dictate that manufacturers aren’t allowed to make untrue statements about the products you consume. If a company claims that its product is organic, for example, it has to be certified organic by a CFIA-licensed organization. In addition to the organic logo, the product has to bear a logo with the name of the organization that certified it as such.

CFIA has inspectors who make sure that companies are conforming to regulations, but the system isn’t perfect. There are just too many food products out there for them to inspect each one. This means that CFIA relies in large part on consumer complaints.

This doesn’t mean, however, there’s a wild west system of food production in Canada. Food manufacturers in Canada have to meet a number of criteria in order to be allowed to operate.

What counts as “natural ingredients” or “natural flavours” in ingredient lists?

If you’ve bought anything with a long list of ingredients recently, chances are one of them was “natural flavours.” If that seems like a vague, ill-defined term, you’re right. Natural flavours just mean that the flavour isn’t synthetically derived, it doesn’t mean that it’s natural to the product. A strawberry granola bar, for example, can contain “natural flavours” that are actually derived from apples.

“Natural ingredients” is similarly vague. All it means is that specific ingredient isn’t synthetic. Salami, for example, is typically highly processed and made with large amounts of nitrates and salt. It’s still allowed to label itself as “made with natural ingredients,” however, so long as it has a few ingredients that qualify as natural — even if those ingredients are just the spices added to it.

What’s the difference between natural, organic, and bio?

While natural just means that the food has undergone minimal processing, it doesn’t mean that it’s healthier or has more nutritional value. Alcohol can be natural, for example.

Organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthier either, but it does mean that it was produced in accordance with certain environmental standards. Organic products are governed by the Canadian Organic Standards, developed by CFIA. This applies to organic products.

These standards dictate that the product cannot be genetically modified and that it must be grown or raised — in the case of livestock — without the use of certain substances. These substances include certain chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, as well as antibiotics and hormones.

Canada has organic equivalency guidelines with other countries, meaning that they recognize each other’s organic designation. Products that the US considers organic, for example, are also accepted as organic here, and vice versa.

One of the organic equivalency agreements Canada has is with the European Union, which includes Germany. The EU and Germany have slightly different organic labelling guidelines, so they use different symbols. BIO is the German symbol for organic foods. It simply means that the product contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, according to German organic standards, and has no genetically-modified components.

What do other food labels actually mean?

If you spend any time in the grocery store these days, you’ve likely noticed a proliferation in new label designations. Here’s what some of these labels actually mean.

Organic
Labelling something as organic means that at least 95% of its ingredients are organic. Only products that meet this standard and are certified by a CIFA-accredited organization can carry the Canada organic logo.

When it comes to organic produce you’d find in grocery stores or farmer’s markets, there are different rules for pesticides. To have an organic produce label, products cannot use synthetic pesticides — unlike conventional produce. However, there’s no actual guarantee that organic produce is fully free of synthetic pesticides due to possible exposure through contact with other products or because of trace amounts in the environment.

Made with organic materials
A product can state that it’s made with organic ingredients if 70% or more are organic, but it cannot use the Canadian organic logo. In this case, however, it still needs to bear the name of the CFIA-accredited organization that certified those ingredients as organic.

Gluten-free
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. While consuming it causes problems for individuals with celiac disease, most people can eat gluten without issue. The gluten-free label indicates that a product doesn’t contain gluten. It doesn’t mean, however, that the product is healthier than an option containing gluten.

Vegan
Vegan products contain no ingredients sourced from animals, including gelatin and eggs.

Non-GMO
Non-GMO stands for non-genetically modified organism. This means that the product doesn’t contain any ingredients that have been altered in a laboratory. Many crops, such as corn, are grown from GMO seeds that are developed to make the plant more drought-tolerant or resistant to pests.

No artificial flavours
No artificial flavours mean that the product’s flavours weren’t made synthetically. It doesn’t mean that the flavours are natural to the product, however. It also doesn’t mean that the product is healthier.

No artificial colours
Just like “no artificial flavours”, this just means that the product’s colours weren’t made synthetically. It doesn’t mean that the colour of the product is naturally occurring, or that the product is healthier.

Certified plant-based
Plant-based foods are vegan, but companies may prefer the plant-based label as some consumers may find the vegan one exclusionary. Labelling something as “plant-based” makes clear that it doesn’t contain animal ingredients. It’s often found on meat or dairy alternatives like tofu or margarine.

While it sounds like a healthy option, it isn’t necessarily. In the case of margarine, for example, it could mean the product is made from canola oil, which tends to be highly processed and usually contains fewer nutrients than extra virgin olive oil. While there are certain organizations in Canada that currently certify foods as being plant-based, they aren’t affiliated with the CFIA which doesn’t currently have guidelines regarding this designation.

Food labelling isn’t meant to be misleading, but it can be downright confusing. Seeing the words natural, plant-based, or gluten-free jumping out at you as you grab a product can give you a false sense of security. It’s easy to believe that you’re buying something that’s a better choice — both nutritionally for your family, and ecologically for the planet.

Even the most educated consumers struggle with their diet, and food labels don’t always hold the answers. If you’re looking to make better nutritional choices, you might benefit from seeing a registered dietitian.

A registered dietitian can help you create a custom meal plan that works for your lifestyle and goals. Best of all, their nutritional advice is backed by science, not marketing. Book an appointment with a registered dietitian today for help making healthier food choices for you and your family.

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