What ‘Natural’ Means in Food Manufacturing
When ‘all natural’ appears on a food label, most consumers assume that the product contains no artificial ingredients. But, you may be surprised at how loosely the word ‘natural’ is used by food manufacturers. Because there is high demand for healthier foods, the word is used as a marketing tool. But savvy shoppers shouldn’t be fooled by this misleading practice.
Food Label Language
The term "natural" does not have an official legal definition. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says a natural food is “A product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and only minimally processed.” Foods may be labeled as ‘natural’ when they have ingredients that have been modified in the lab. To get a bigger picture of what natural means in food manufacturing, let’s explore some ingredients regularly added to food and expose just how ‘natural’ they are.
Modified Vegetable Starches
While straight from the farm to the store is my idea of natural, but the term is being bent by manufacturers of baked goods. Traditionally, the industry has used chemicals to prevent mold growth, strengthen and condition the dough and enhance flavor. Now those additives have been replaced with processed starches derived from wheat, corn, tapioca, sweet potatoes, and other roots and grains. For example, Ulrick & Short, a manufacturer of “additive free ingredients” boasts on their website, “We offer a comprehensive range of clean label, functional native starches, fat -replacers, functional flours, bakery glazes, phosphate replacers and proteins from a range of crops and cereals.” While they are healthier than the chemicals they replace, these highly processed ingredients are far from their natural state. But on the ingredient list, they bear the names of the original grains or roots.
Powdered Vegetable Fats
Ingredient manufacturers are producing ‘fat powders’ from sunflower and grape seed oil. Powdered fats are used in creams, soups and sauces to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats and to avoid the ‘hydrogenated fat’ designation. An article about the launch of three new vegetable fat ingredients reveals that these powders are yet another processed form of Mother Nature’s creation. The leading manufacturer of powdered fat, Cognis, gives them names like Cegepal TG 186, Cegepal O3C and Lamequick SUN 40, but on the food label, they may be called ‘vegetable fat’.
The Bottom Line
The ingredients in some natural foods are still processed in the lab and, although they may be healthier, they are not as natural as you may think. The only way to have an all natural meal is to cook with ingredients that you have grown, raised, or purchased directly from the farm. But, because that’s nearly impossible for the vast majority of people, it pays to carefully read ingredient list and then to question what you read.
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