Gone are the days when grocery shopping meant choosing food products based on brand name alone. Today we look for foods that have short lists of simple ingredients and no heavily processed or artificial ingredients.
Buying foods with claims such as "natural," "all natural," "natural ingredients" or "natural flavours" seems, at first glance, like an easy way to cut back on synthetic ingredients, refined sugars and unhealthy fats. But that's often not the case.
The term "natural" can be misleading to consumers, many of whom assume it to mean "healthier" or "more nutritious."
According to a 2016 global survey conducted in 11 countries by the Enough Movement, 40 per cent of consumers reported buying natural foods because they felt they were healthier and safer.
Two-thirds believed that "natural" products didn't contain pesticide or hormone residues, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and artificial ingredients.
According to Health Canada, a food product advertised as natural is not allowed to contain any added vitamins, minerals, artificial flavourings or food additives. The food needs to be in its original form, meaning that none of its natural components, with the exception of water, can be removed.
"Natural" foods also cannot be processed significantly. For example, they can't be bleached, deboned, hydrogenated, smoked or tenderized. Processes that minimally alter a food are permitted, including aging, chopping, drying, fermenting, grating, grinding and milling.
A package of dry-roasted almonds can be labelled natural but smoked almonds can't. A tin of ground coffee beans can have "all natural" stamped on the label only if the caffeine has not been removed.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, if a product carries a claim "contains natural ingredients," all of the ingredients should meet the criteria for "natural."
A claim of "natural ingredients" doesn't speak to the healthfulness of a food product. While "all natural" almond butter is nutritious, "all natural" licorice, packed with added sugar, certainly is not.
Natural versus organic
Don't assume, also, that foods labelled natural will be free of pesticide, hormone and antibiotic residues or GMOs.
Ground meat that comes from conventionally raised beef cattle will contain hormone and antibiotic residues even though it's a natural food.
Likewise, conventionally grown fruit and vegetables will contain pesticide residues. And frozen edamame labelled "all natural" will very likely contain GMOs unless stated otherwise.
If you want to avoid these things, look for foods labelled organic.
Organic foods are grown and harvested without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, irradiation and artificial additives. Organic livestock are fed organic feed and are given access to the outdoors, fresh air and sunlight.
How natural are 'natural flavours'?
Flavours that have been derived from a plant or animal source can be claimed to be "natural." Natural flavours could be made from compounds in spices, herbs, bark, plant roots, vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, eggs and so on.
But natural flavours contain a lot of other things too; they're not quite as natural as they sound.
A single flavour preparation, for example, may consist of as many as 100 ingredients, including synthetic solvents, emulsifiers and preservatives, substances that allow all the ingredients to mix together or prevent the flavour from changing.
Turns out, the difference between natural and artificial flavours is often quite minuscule.
Manufacturers advertise "naturally flavoured" or "contains natural flavours" on lots of unhealthy foods, hoping we'll think they're a healthier choice.
Dare's RealFruit Gummies are naturally flavoured. They also have five teaspoons of added sugar per eight tiny candies.
Betty Crocker's Fruit by the Foot rolls also boast the fact that they're naturally flavoured. I can't see how that adds any goodness to a sugary product that lists 18 ingredients, including tartrazine, an artificial colour that can cause allergic reactions, especially in people with asthma.
Health Canada's amended labelling regulations, adopted last year, mean that manufacturers will no longer be able to simply list "colour" or "natural colour" on ingredient lists. Instead, each individual colour – natural or artificial – will have to be listed by its proper name.
Manufacturers have until December, 2021, to implement these new labelling requirements.
The healthiest natural foods don't need a label to tell you that they are free of artificial ingredients. Hint: Most of them are found around the perimeter of the grocery store.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private-practice dietitian, is director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.