In many respects, making healthier food choices has recently become far easier than it's been in the past.
From caloric content being displayed on menus, to the USDA's new My Plate design, and of course the remarkable amount of information available to us on the Internet, searching for and finding science-based and accurate information has really never been easier.
Unfortunately, however, there's still a truly shocking amount of false, misleading, and utterly false information that we often have to sift through until we (hopefully) find the truth.
One area which has recently caused a great deal of confusion is food labeling and understanding what certain labels actually mean.
Notably, labels such as Organic and Natural have received a great deal of attention. What's frustrating, however, is not that these labels exist (in fact, I think they can be very helpful), but that there are so many conflicting views regarding the validity of these products and what their labels denote.
Some argue organic is the only way to eat if you don't wish to die a slow, painful, and early death as a result of ingesting various toxins and pesticides. And others proclaim they won't eat anything other than foods stamped with an all natural label as they'll only eat foods in their purest form.
But what do these labels truly mean?
Does having the USDA Certified Organic stamp of approval automatically make it a "healthy" food?
Is an "All Natural" product inherently better than its otherwise identical non-all-natural counterpart?
And, perhaps most importantly, are products bearing these labels intrinsically "healthy" options?
To answer these questions accurately we must first understand what each of these labels truly mean. Afterwards, we'll review the current data at which point you can decide what (if any) food labels are important and necessary for you.
But first, before we begin, I think it's important to answer one crucial question:
What Makes a Food "Healthy?"
Does it need to be low-calorie? Nutrient dense? Low-carb? Low-fat? Free of pesticides? Unprocessed?
The options are endless and it even gets more complicated than that! So, in my opinion, before we decide what the healthiest options are, we must first establish what "healthy" means to each and every one of us on an individual basis.
Personally, I don't view any single food as inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Too much (or too little) of anything, regardless of what it is, isn't conducive to long-term health or success.
Additionally, as long as an individual is habitually eating in a manner which appropriately supports their caloric, macro/micronutrient, and individual needs, then moderately incorporating traditionally labeled unhealthy foods into their diet likely won't result in unhealthy side effects and, may in fact, be beneficial on a physical, emotional, and psychological level.
In other words, instead of judging the "healthiness" of each individual food, I prefer to take a more holistic approach and consider the health of a person's overall nutritional habits.
Taking my definition of "healthy" into account, let's move onto the first label of the day:
What Is "Natural?"
According to the FDA, "It is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives."
In short, the FDA has not officially defined the term natural. And interestingly enough, they even allude to the fact that, unless you're growing and/or killing your own food, anything you buy in the grocery store is in some way, shape, or form processed and therefore not "natural."
Whether that's a good or bad thing is entirely up to you, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
Despite not having a clear-cut definition, the FDA has provided a guideline that states "Natural" is a general term which encompasses a wide-ranging spectrum of foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; growth hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers.
So there's your definition. For a food to be labeled as natural it must be minimally processed and free of the aforementioned ingredients such as synthetic preservatives and artificial sweeteners.
It's important to note, however, that for a product to bear the "natural" label it's only required to be processed without the use of artificial additives, but not necessarily raised without them. To illustrate, meat and poultry items labeled as natural can be raised using antibiotics, growth hormones, and other synthetic ingredients so long as their use is discontinued after the animal has been slaughtered.
Needless to say, this lack of a clear definition has created a great deal of confusion, controversy, and deceit. Not only are consumers utterly perplexed as to what may (or may not) be the "healthiest" option, but many company's perpetuate the issue by making false or misleading claims solely for the purpose of selling more products.
Which brings us to the question: Are foods labeled as "natural" inherently better or healthier than foods not labeled as natural?
In short: No.
But perhaps a better answer would be: It depends.
Again, taking my above definition of "healthy" into account, I don't think foods labeled as natural are inherently better or healthier than foods not labeled as natural. Rather, I think it depends on the individual, their habitual diet, and the extent to which they're consuming certain foods (regardless of whether they're labeled as natural or not) on a day-to-day basis.
Additionally, I think it's important to understand that just because a food is labeled as "natural" doesn't mean it's inherently good for us. Foods labeled as "Natural," "All Natural," and "100% Natural" can be calorically dense, high in sugar, and undergo extreme processing measures.
That being the case, when it comes to "natural" foods, invest in what you feel most comfortable with. Stick to a diet largely consisting of fruits, vegetables, lean animal proteins, whole grains, and a mix of high quality fats. Whether or not these foods are labeled as "natural" is (at least in my opinion) irrelevant.
On to label number two...
What Is "Organic?"
As stated by the FDA, "the term organic refers not only to the food itself, but to how it was processed." In order to be labeled as "organic," foods "must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity." They can't use a variety of products such as synthetic pesticides and bioengineered genes; and "organic farm animals must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones; and organic foods may not be irradiated."
All in all, organic food products seem to be produced with as little human, technological, and chemical intervention as possible.
Simple enough, right?
Well, not so fast. Where it starts to get confusing is when we begin to see the different types of organic labeling. Without going into excruciating detail, there are 3 major types of organic product labels which I've listed and generally defined below:
1. 100% Organic: Derived from and made with 100% organic ingredients.
2. Organic: At least 95% of the product uses organic ingredients.
3. Made with Organic Ingredients: Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
Delving into each subset of organic labels is entirely outside the scope of this article so, for today's purposes, I'm going to lump all types of organic into one general group.
Now, it seems as though a large majority of people who buy organic do so to limit their consumption of pesticides and food additives. That being the case, I think it's safe to assume (and correct me if I'm wrong) that people want to avoid these food additives because of their potential adverse side effects on human health.
So what's the word? Are organic foods safer than non-organic foods?
Well, simply put, we're not sure.
The current data regarding the superior safety of organic vs. conventional foods is inconclusive. While a number of animal and observational studies suggest organic is the safer option, other similarly performed trials disagree.
To illustrate this point, Christine Williams and colleagues, in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, reviewed the current data on organic vs. conventional food and concluded, "The quality and quantity of the science applied in this area to date is inadequate. Conclusions cannot be drawn regarding potentially beneficial or adverse nutritional consequences, to the consumer, of increased consumption of organic foods."
In spite of this, Williams and colleagues appeared to suggest that any differences between organic and conventionally produced foods are minimal and inconsequential. They expressed this view by stating, "There have been very few scientific studies in which foods grown conventionally have been compared, under comparable and controlled conditions, with those produced organically, in terms of their nutrient composition or their biological effects on animals or human subjects. It would appear that few differences can be demonstrated, and where differences are detected they are very small."
Finally, and seemingly in accordance with Williams, in their review of the currnet literature comparing organic vs. conventional foods, Magkos and colleagues concluded "a balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, and adequate in foods from the other groups, is unequivocally able to maintain and improve health, regardless of its organic or conventional origin."
In short, we're not entirely sure if one is safer than the other. However, from what we can tell thus far, it's really not all that important. As long as you're eating a typically "healthy" diet, it doesn't matter whether you eat organically or conventionally produced foods.
So what about overall health? Are organic foods generally healthier than non-organic foods?
Well, according to the FDA, "The USDA makes no claims that organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food, and indeed many organic foods are likely to match their conventional counterparts...."
Based on the current literature, there's little to no evidence suggesting that organic products are inherently healthier than their non-organic equivalents.
While there are some minor discrepancies (such as a higher vitamin C and lower nitrate content in organic leafy vegetables), research has not yet indicated whether these differences will have a clinical significance on human health. Personally, I doubt it will.
Despite there being a general lack of evidence proving that organic is healthier than conventional, the rise of organic food products and advertisements has unquestionably resulted in the formation of a "health halo" regarding organic foods and their supposed superiority to all others.
Briefly, a health halo describes a phenomenon in which consumers make (positive or negative) inferences about a specific product based on separate and irrelevant characteristics of the same or similar products.
In the context of organic food labels, Schuldt and Schwarz found that, "When a food is described as organic, perceivers erroneously infer that it is lower-calorie and that it can be eaten more frequently."
In other words, when a food product bears the organic label, often times people make the mistake of assuming it's automatically "healthy" and likely lower-calorie than its non-organic counterpart. As a result, this could potentially cause a downstream effect and lead to weight gain and other related health issues.
Which leads me to my next big point: Just because a food is labeled organic does not imply that it is inherently healthy, low-calorie, nutrient dense, good for weight loss, etc., etc., etc.
It simply means that it's organic...period.
Regardless of whether it's packaged in an eco-friendly box, marked with the USDA Organic stamp of approval, or cleverly named in a way that suggests life-long health, if you want the unbiased truth, then you need to turn the box over and read the nutrition label.
Foods labeled organic and/or natural are not inherently healthier than their conventional counterparts. As long as you're habitually eating appropriate quantities of fruits, veggies, lean animal proteins, unprocessed whole grains, and a mix of high quality fats, the current research has simply not found any conclusive data to support the consumption of one over the others.
If you have the extra cash and want to buy the more expensive options, by all means go for it. But remember, just because a food is labeled organic or natural does not imply intrinsic health or quality value.
Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.