Americans have become much more food savvy in the last few years thanks to the help of a few key voices and a television network that made the ordinary act of cooking and eating an extraordinary obsession. “Organic”, “natural”, “free range”, “cage-free”, “local” are terms that might seem to be very straight forward, but, unfortunately, food as we know it is nothing but.
A focus on nutrition, the environment, the humane treatment of our livestock, and an explosion of special diets considerations have brought very interesting and passionate conversation to the dinner table.There are several important food topics in desperate need of exploration and discussion, but for now, we are going to start with the most basic category, “natural”.
Last week, a nationally known cereal brand, Kashi, came under intense fire because of some objections about their labeling practices and how they've chosen to market their products. In light of this recent uproar, I figured it might be a good time to try to clear up something that should be easy to understand, but sometimes isn't.
The word “natural” sounds, well….Natural. Surreptitiously, though, products labeled “natural” can sometimes be just the opposite. If a food product has an ingredient that was at one point in its lifecycle a “natural” ingredient, but has since been modified, the package can still boast the “natural” claim. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administation (FDA) is being petitioned by activists to be more stringent in regard to its labeling criteria when it comes to “natural” products.
The FDA has long been non-committal in regard to what precisely the standard is for such a claim. Its origins were really vague in 1993, and seven years later, they are vague still.
In 2007, the FDA received two petitions – one by the Sugar Association and the other from Sara Lee requesting them to clearly define the term. The FDA is still holding to policy that it released in 1993: “FDA has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural’, however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
If you're one who wants to avoid extraneous chemicals, preservatives, additives, hormones and umpteen other “junk” ingredients, be persistent and dig a little deeper. Focus on the ingredients listed on the label, or better – don’t buy processed foods.
My policy is simply, “If it’s not food – don’t eat it!” A general rule of thumb for practical purposes is to avoid eating most foods that come from the center of the supermarket (shop the perimeter). For dairy and meat products, you will have to do some research, but it's definitely worth your time.