1 June 2009

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: Foods labelled as ‘Natural’ are healthier

Nicole Senior

Fact: ‘Natural’ claims mean very little
To find healthier foods, check the ingredients list and nutrition information panel on the label, and try eating more fresh foods that don’t need labels. According to Mintel market research, ‘natural’ was the most popular claim made on new food and drink products around the world in 2008. In Australia, a Galaxy Research survey on 1,100 adults found 99% of Australians are consuming more natural and unprocessed foods to improve their health. But are we always getting something healthier when we buy foods with ‘natural’ on the label?

Not when you think in terms of adverse nutrients, such as saturated fat and sodium. Salt, butter, lard and cream are natural, however they are disastrous to our heath when eaten in excess, and surveys show we are still eating too much of these. Organic claims carry similar health cred with consumers, however may not actually deliver the health benefits you might expect. While organic food is better for the environment, it is not necessarily better for your health. An organic muffin made with white flour, butter and sugar is still a high calorie, high saturated fat snack with poor nutritional value – the addition of blueberries does little to redeem it.


I once read ‘organic crystallised sugar cane juice’ on the label of a so-called ‘health bar’ – a classic case of sugar dressed up as natural, dressed up as healthy. Similarly I have encountered an organic ‘health bar’ made with white flour, butter, sugar and oats with enough saturated fat to exceed the entire day’s maximum, and as many calories as an entire meal. Another obvious example is ‘natural’ confectionery, which contains as much sugar and calories as the regular stuff, and offers no health benefit for most people (except perhaps a misplaced reduction in guilt).

In Australia, the regulations for ‘natural’ claims are very open to interpretation. In fact, there is no formal definition of ‘natural’ within the Food Standards Code, so consumer protection is via a set of “guidelines” for interpreting the Trade Practices Act from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). While corrective action is sometimes taken for flagrant breaches, there are thousands of foods to police, limited resources to police them, and very expensive court time needed to bring companies making dodgy ‘natural’ claims into line.

Is our hankering for ‘natural’ foods a sign of our general disillusionment toward the modern pace of life and our complex food environment? Perhaps ‘natural’ is a word that promises deliverance from the time and stress of interpreting nutrition labels? This same simplicity rationale is behind traffic light labelling: red means unhealthy and green means healthy, right? Well, no not always, and so much depends on the individual dietary context, frequency and amount of the food. Like a lot of areas in nutrition, the simple way doesn’t always guarantee the best way, and creates much collateral damage.

If we are to make the best of our sophisticated food supply, we must read and understand the nutrition information on our food. A good first step is relinquish our desperate grip on the ‘natural’ claim as a healthy signpost. Sometimes ‘natural’ is anything but healthy. Oh, and eat more fresh foods without labels – much food goodness needs no advertising.

For more heart-healthy eating advice, tips and recipes go to www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au