When "all-natural" isn't a good thing

I am thrilled that my friend, former coworker and super-talented writer, Megan Margulies, is sharing her thoughts on "natural" food with us below in what is NL's first ever guest post.

***

Back in February of 2013, Nourished Living shared a blog post called, “Understanding Labels: What is in your Meat? Conventional vs. Organic vs. Natural Meat.” We know that the “all-natural” label holds farms to very little regulations in the raising or production of their meat. Most frightening, and you will find this on the above-mentioned chart, is the fact that farms aren’t required to be inspected for federal/state compliance.

By now, it’s pretty clear that the “all-natural” label is one that we should be leery of. At first glance, the term sounds lovely. You can almost see the chicken gallivanting across an open field as its loving farmer looks on smiling.  But when you stop to really, truly think about it—of course that chicken breast is natural…it’s a chicken! There is no reason for you to look at this label, and think, “Oh, good, this chicken is natural…it’s not made out of…plastic?”

The FDA says “from a food science perspective, 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.” This means that they have not developed a definition for use of term “natural, ” but will allow the label to be used “if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

In recent years, we have been wired to think “natural” is the almighty version of meat and produce. Not so, says Jessi Haggerty, RD, and wellness blogger.  “It's important to remember that “natural” ingredients can be harmful. Cocaine, Alcohol, and Tobacco are all natural, but shouldn't be consumed in unlimited amounts.”

With ever-evolving education and public awareness of food and farming practices, it would be expected that stricter federal regulations would be put into place for food labeling. In a letter dated January 6, 2014, the FDA responded to the issue saying that they have not devised a formal definition of the term “natural” with respect to foods because there are too many factors to consider. These factors include “relevant science; consumer preferences, perceptions, and beliefs; the vast array of modern food production technologies in addition to genetic engineering (e.g. use of different types of fertilizer, growth promotion drugs, animal husbandry methods); the myriad food processing methods, and any strictures flowing from the First Amendment.” They go on to say that even if they were to define “natural” in the context of food labeling, there would be “no assurance that we would revoke, amend, or add to the current policy, or develop any definition at all."

Action Steps

It’s clear that we cannot rely on the FDA to protect us from the marketing maneuvers of companies like Perdue. So what should we be looking for? Haggerty recommends buying meat with an “antibiotic-free” label. “Remember, you eat what the animal eats, and if it's eating antibiotics, so are you. If you want to go one step further, find meats that are eating an 'all-natural' diet as well. Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, and free-range chicken are signs of higher-quality meats.  If you are looking for humanely raised meats, find something that falls on the Global Animal Partnership rating scale.

We live in a world that is constantly increasing in its rate of production and consumption—and with that, comes unhealthy “farming” practices. It’s important to keep ourselves educated so that we can continue to live long, healthy, and delicious lives.

Megan Margulies is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. To learn more, visit her website at www.meganmargulies.com