When Foods Go ‘Natural’ — Does That Really Make Them Healthier?

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

You may have noticed food giant Nestle’s recent announcement that the company is removing artificial colors and flavors from more than 250 chocolate bars across 10 brands and moving to “natural” ingredients instead. Sounds like a healthy switch. But is it?

Nestle’s press release about change makes no claims about the advantages of “natural” ingredients, except that consumers prefer them:

… [S]aid Doreen Ida, president, Nestle USA Confections & Snacks, “We know that candy consumers are interested in broader food trends around fewer artificial ingredients. …”

According to Ida, Nestle USA conducted research on brands like Butterfinger, which indicates that U.S. consumers prefer candy brands they know and love to be free from artificial flavors and colors. Further, findings from Nielsen’s 2014 Global Health & Wellness Survey show more than 60 percent of Americans say no artificial colors or flavors is important to their food purchase decisions.

It may be that consumers will buy more Nestle chocolate bars with the switch to natural ingredients. But when it comes to food packaging, words like “natural” and “artificial” mean less than the average shopper realizes.

All added colors and flavors are processed products.

Take annatto, for example. That’s what Nestle officials say they’ll use as food coloring in Butterfinger instead of the more controversial dyes known as “Red 40” and “Yellow 5.”

Annatto is considered natural coloring because it is derived from the seeds of achiote, or Bixa orellana, a plant indigenous to tropical Latin America. But those seeds bear little resemblance to the annatto coloring Nestle will put in your Butterfinger, because deriving stable food-grade coloring from rainforest seeds requires human intervention.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the process starts with “extraction of the seed with aqueous alkali (usually sodium or potassium hydroxide)” or with “vegetable oil or organic solvents” and might also involve “water suspending,” “steeping,” and “filtering and concentrating the extract into a paste.”

Wouldn’t it be more natural — and safer — to omit all types of coloring from foods? WebMD states annatto is “likely safe for most people when used in food amounts,” but why risk it when Butterfinger tastes just as delicious without added coloring?

All added colors and flavors are subject to notoriously lax federal food labeling laws

When it comes to food label ingredient lists, loopholes allow manufacturers to gloss over the truth about what goes into our food. Consumer advocacy groups have filed more than 150 food labeling class action lawsuits against food and drink companies in recent years, according to Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.

How can you protect yourself and your family? Learn these food-label facts before you return to the grocery store:

1. ‘Natural’ is nonsense

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the government agency responsible for safeguarding our food supply, including regulating food labels, has no definition for the word “natural” or words derived from it.

“However,” the FDA website states, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

A 24-page report from the Valparaiso University School of Law states otherwise:

This restrictive definition is merely aspirational. As a wave of recent lawsuits demonstrates, some food manufacturers have taken great liberties with their use of the term.

Although the FDA has indicated that the issue is not a priority for the agency because of limited resources and because there was not enough evidence that consumers were being misled, this article demonstrates that the meaning of ‘natural’ is of great significance in the marketplace, as indicated by the premium consumers are willing to pay for ‘natural’ foods, recent polls demonstrating consumer concern and confusion over such claims, and an influx of recent lawsuits alleging that ‘natural’ claims do not meet consumer expectations of natural ingredients or minimum processing.

By the way, the word “natural” is equally meaningless on beauty product packaging. Here’s How to Read Beauty Product Labels.

2. Nature is tricky

Federal law does define “natural flavor” and “natural flavoring” — in about 100 broad words:

“[T]he essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in 182.10, 182.20, 182.40, and 182.50 and part 184 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.”

So essentially anything with plant or animal origins that’s used primarily as flavoring is considered natural.

That can mean Gross Ingredients in Your Food, such as castoreum, a secretion from glands on beavers’ behinds. They use it to mark their territory. We use it as vanilla flavoring.

3. Euphemisms are legal

Technical terms like “castoreum” are just one way food label laws allow manufacturers to disguise the truth about what you put in your body.

Federal law says categorical terms like “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” can suffice, too:

“The label of a food to which flavor is added shall declare the flavor in the statement of ingredients in the following way:

  • Spice, natural flavor, and artificial flavor may be declared as “spice,” “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” or any combination thereof, as the case may be. …”

So whether a flavor is natural or synthetic, manufacturers don’t necessarily have to tell you what it’s made of if they don’t want to. I avoid foods whose ingredient lists include “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor.”

4. ‘Incidental additives’ are not listed

When it comes to one type of ingredient, called “incidental additives,” food manufacturers don’t even need euphemisms. By federal law, they generally don’t have to tell you that these ingredients touched your food:

The following foods are exempt from compliance with the requirements of section 403(i)(2) of the act (requiring a declaration on the label of the common or usual name of each ingredient when the food is fabricated from two or more ingredients). …

Incidental additives that are present in a food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food. For the purposes of this paragraph (a)(3), incidental additives are:

  • Substances that have no technical or functional effect but are present in a food by reason of having been incorporated into the food as an ingredient of another food, in which the substance did have a functional or technical effect.
  • Processing aids…

According to Food Safety News, incidental additives include citric acid used to clean apples, ammonium hydroxide used to control the pH of ground beef, oil for fish filets and anti-caking agents for seasonings.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.