It's one of the most popular label claims around, but there are some surprising ingredients lurking in your 'all natural' health foodsBy: Tracy Miller
Unless you have a green thumb, lots of outdoor space, and the time to grow your own grub, sticking to a diet free of processed ingredients can be challenging. (If you are that person, can we come over for dinner?) Otherwise, you do your best, eating whole foods whenever possible, and opting for the most unadulterated, natural options you can find when you buy from the box or the bag. Or so you think.
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The problem is, labels can be misleading. You’d need several pairs of hands to count the number of “100% Natural” claims you see in just one aisle of the supermarket. That’s because neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the Federal Trade Commission have a strict definition for the term; the FDA says it "has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." But hold up: Without getting so much as a wrist slap, so-called “natural” foods can still contain a wide range of processed sweeteners, lab-produced “natural” flavors and colors, additives and preservatives. (For a guide to what’s actually good for you, check out Prevention’s Healthiest Food Awards.)
Lately, though, some brands’ health halos have been showing some tarnish. General Mills currently faces a lawsuit over claims its "100% Natural" Nature Valley granola bars contain two processed ingredients—maltodextrin and high maltose corn syrup—that don't exist in nature. And Snapple recently beat a suit that took issue over the high-fructose corn syrup in its "natural" drinks (the company has since introduced recipes with real sugar).
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But those are just two examples—unfortunately, there are many others. Here, we take a look at the ingredients in some of your favorite “natural” foods, so you can decide for yourself what's real and what's not.
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What could be more natural than granola, you ask? Well, unless you're baking it yourself with whole ingredients, plenty. While many granola-bar brands have removed high-fructose corn syrup from their products in response to consumer concern, a laundry list of other less-than-natural ingredients remain, including processed sweeteners such as corn syrup, fructose, and invert sugar, and the vague "natural flavors"—an umbrella term for flavors derived from natural sources, but which are often processed in a lab like artificial flavors. Then there's cellulose, an ingredient made from nontoxic wood pulp or cotton, that's added to up the fiber content in your bar (read more about it in our list of the 7 Grossest Things In Your Food). Yum?
The ultimate health food, right? Not always. Natural and artificial flavors and processed sweeteners abound in many packaged yogurts, so don't assume that blueberry flavor (not to mention the purplish hue) is coming only from real blueberries. As always, scrutinize the label, and buy organic if you want to avoid dairy from cows given artificial growth hormones.
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Not surprisingly, "natural" cheese substitutes often contain added colors and flavors to make them more, well, cheese-like. One common ingredient? Carrageenan, a processed carbohydrate that may upset some people's stomachs. Additionally, soy is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops around—roughly 94% of the soy grown in the U.S. is GMO (Search: What are GMOs?), in fact—so if you're wary of frankenfoods, make sure you're buying organic.
For more on why GMOs are suspect, read Foods As Nature Made Them.
Beverage companies love to tout their tea drinks as a healthy alternative to soda—and what could be bad here? After all, black and green teas are loaded with antioxidants, and herbal brews can help digestion, an upset stomach—even rattled nerves. But if you check the ingredients list of your "all-natural" bottled iced tea, you may discover a few surprise ingredients in addition to leaves and water. Some sweetened teas rely on high-fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. And if you're sipping a fruit-flavored tea, you likely won't find real lemons, raspberries, or peaches in there, but instead "natural flavors."
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"All natural" shows up on lots of salad dressing labels, but take a look at the extra-long ingredients lists on many of the big brands and it's hard not to feel skeptical. High-fructose corn syrup and "natural flavors" abound (not to mention the fact that bottled dressings are often heavy on other kinds of sweeteners and saturated fat, making them total diet disasters). If you don't want to spoil the healthfulness of your salad, try mixing your own dressing at home with a little extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
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Bad news: Nature's perfect sweetener isn't always 100% natural. The jarred honeys you'll find in an average grocery store have all undergone various levels of processing, and it's hard to know how much just from looking at the labels. In fact, according to research by Food Safety News, most store-bought honey isn't technically honey at all, because virtually all of the natural pollen has been filtered out. For truly natural honey—and all the immune-boosting and allergy-fighting benefits that come with it—head to a farmer's market, where you can buy it raw from local beekeepers.
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Many so-called "all natural" ice creams contain way more than milk, eggs, and sugar—such as "natural flavors," highly processed sweeteners like corn syrup, modified starches (additives processed from naturally occurring food starches that are often used as thickening agents), and juice concentrates (used as flavors and sweeteners). Not exactly how you'd churn it at home, right? If you're picking up a pint at the grocery store, look for one made with a short list of whole ingredients.
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Stroll the aisles of your local grocery and you’ll find countless cereal brands that bill themselves as “all natural” and "good sources of fiber and whole grains" but are full of sugar and artificial colors. But even brands we think of as healthy don't always live up to their reputation. Kashi came under fire on social media sites this year for calling its cereals "natural" despite being made with GMO soy. The company subsequently announced that all its new products will be at least 70% certified organic and Non-GMO Project Verified by 2015.
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Does this sound like a healthy way to top off your workout? A bottled beverage "naturally sweetened" with barely pronounceable ingredients like erythretrol and crystalline fructose. (Video: Pick the Right Sports Drink) We'll take a glass of tap with a splash of lemon, thank you very much.
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