Many Americans are reportedly misled by foods or supplements labeled "natural," assuming that they are healthier or safer than other foods. Rather than focus on this term, which for most products has no legal definition, nutrition experts say we should focus on increasing our use of less processed foods.
Some people assume a food labeled "natural" is low in sugar, salt, or fat, but that's not true. These flavorings are natural, meaning not man-made. Processed foods may contain honey or molasses instead of sugar, or sea salt instead of regular salt, but these types of substitutions don't make foods more nutritious.
According to a recent survey by the National Consumers League, three-quarters of Americans believe products labeled "natural" contain at least 90 percent natural ingredients, and even more people believe that "natural" means a product is safe. Actually, neither assumption is true. The California Department of Human Services, for example, found that 32 percent of "natural" remedies sampled from herbal stores contained heavy metals, like lead or arsenic, or unlisted pharmaceutical ingredients.
On the other hand, if we think of natural foods as being less processed, with fewer nutrients removed and less fat, sugar and salt added, these foods are healthful choices. Making less processed foods the major part of our diet is in keeping with major nutrition guidelines.
With grain products like bread, cereal, rice and pasta, choosing less refined versions means choosing whole grains. In refining grains, as in milling wheat to make white flour, much of the fiber, vitamins, minerals and health-promoting phytochemicals is removed along with the bran and germ. Whole-grain foods like whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice are nutritionally superior to refined products. More than five major studies link regular consumption of whole grains to a 30 percent drop in the risk of heart disease risk. Other studies show a 10 to 50 percent lowered risk of various cancers among those who eat more whole grains.
Fruits and vegetables are also examples of less processed foods with much to offer. They provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. But this is a case where not all processing is bad. The health-protective phytochemical called lycopene, found in red-colored produce like tomatoes, is more available to the body when processed, as with a sauce or paste, than when raw. The point, however, is to choose real fruits and vegetables, not substitutes. Snacking on grape-flavored fruit rolls, for example, is not the same as snacking on grapes.
Years ago, smoking and salting were necessary to preserve meat and poultry and keep them safe to eat. With modern refrigeration, that is no longer necessary. Frequent use of smoked and cured meat is linked with increased cancer risk, and the high sodium content involved is contrary to heart-health recommendations. Breading or deep-frying meat, fish, or poultry is another example of processing that reduces nutritional value.
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Foods that are less processed and closer to their natural state offer many health benefits. But don't assume anything about a food just because it's labeled "natural." Check the Nutrition Facts panel and the major ingredients to see if it's a healthy choice. And realize that many less-processed foods are good choices, but not necessarily marketed as "natural."