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What ‘natural’ can really mean on food labels in Canada

Food giant Kellogg said it would be changing some product formulas and removing “all natural” and “nothing artificial” from some Kashi brand products in the United States as part of a legal settlement.

M. Spencer Green/The Canadian Press

Do you gravitate toward cereal, pasta sauces or peanut butter emblazoned with an "all natural" label? With all of the products out there competing for our attention, choosing ones that are made with natural ingredients seems like an easy, obvious way to ensure what you're getting is good for you.

Except that it's not necessarily true.

The rules surrounding use of terms like "all natural" and "no artificial ingredients" are often ambiguous and, as a result, can mislead consumers.

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On Thursday, food giant Kellogg said it would be changing some product formulas and removing "all natural" and "nothing artificial" from some Kashi brand products in the United States as part of a legal settlement. A lawsuit was launched against the company in 2011 because many products labelled "natural" or "nothing artificial" contained synthetic ingredients, such as pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate and soy oil processed with a component of gasoline, according to The New York Times.

The problem of foods carrying an "all natural" label despite the presence of processed, chemical ingredients is not confined to Kellogg. More companies are using words like "simple," "natural" and "no artificial" to attract health-conscious consumers.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has created some rules to prevent companies from abusing the "natural" term.

The CFIA says that foods can only be represented as natural if they have never contained an added vitamin, nutrient, artificial flavour or food additive. The food also needs to be in its original form and can't have been processed significantly.

But companies are allowed to use a "natural ingredients" label in cases where products contain some natural ingredients. This could easily give consumers the false impression that all ingredients in the product are natural.

And consumers should also keep in mind that "natural" ingredients aren't necessarily an indication of their nutritional value. A product made with all-natural ingredients can contain high amounts of fat, sugar and/or sodium, which can lead to health problems if consumed in excess.

Consumers who want truly natural foods might be best picking those with no label at all.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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