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Looking Behind the 'Natural' Label on Foods


Back in the summer, we talked with Marion Nestle about some of these food matters. She teaches nutrition and food safety at New York University, and she wrote the book. It's called, "What to Eat."

Ms. Nestle, welcome back.

Dr. MARION NESTLE (New York University): Nice to be here.

ADAMS: You know, the term organic we've wrestled with in the past. That's hard enough to deal with. But it seems like natural could be even more problematic for us?

Dr. NESTLE: Well, organic is actually very simple to deal with. It's governed by rules and the companies that produce organic foods have to follow those rules and they're inspected to make sure that they do. So nothing could be simpler. It's black or white. They either do it or they don't.

ADAMS: Now when you go to the store, do you have any difficulty with natural? Natural is all over the place. It's almost like - the one I like is farm fresh. They like to use that one.

Dr. NESTLE: Well, I just find it entertaining. I mean, I sort of collect the terms. I find them hilarious because they're meaningless and yet they sell food. And I think somebody who isn't really up on FDA and USDA regulations will see the word natural and think that's really good.

And of course, the people who don't like organics - and there are many - feel that natural is better than organic, which it may or may not be, and prefer to use natural because it leaves them so much more wiggle room.

ADAMS: The producers like to use the word.

Dr. NESTLE: The producers and also the people who feel that organic rules don't go far enough.

ADAMS: So natural sort of works for them.

Dr. NESTLE: Yes, whatever they choose it to mean, as long as it's truthful and not misleading.

ADAMS: Back in the summer, Melissa Block, you recall, brought some yogurt in to talk with you about. We should point out you're in New York and we're in Washington, so you can't see. We have brought today some packages from the grocery store. And I have one which may work. Clearly, here's an example. It's Nature's Promise chicken and it says right on the cover all natural. No antibiotics administered. Fat and all vegetable diet. No growth stimulants or hormones.

Dr. NESTLE: Okay. The chicken wouldn't have hormones anyway, so that's a gratuitous statement and the rest of it you take on face value. There's no inspection system to back it up.

ADAMS: Okay, so this would be natural.

Dr. NESTLE: That would be natural.

ADAMS: All right. Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars. Right on the box it says 100 percent natural. Excellent source of whole grain. What should I look for here?

Dr. NESTLE: The whole grain as a high ingredient on the ingredient list would be where I would start. I don't know what they mean by natural. Maybe it means that no artificial fibers had been added. It would be hard to know without seeing the ingredient list.

ADAMS: Okay. Midway down the ingredient list - at least not at the top - is high fructose corn syrup.

Dr. NESTLE: Right. Now is that natural or not? Ooh. That's a wonderful question. High fructose corn syrup is made by taking corn starch and using several kinds of enzymes in order to convert the starch to sugars, so that's an enzymatic process that does occur in nature. It occurs in your mouth, for example. I wouldn't call it natural if it's in the laboratory. So that's one of the points of debate. Would you consider something that's been treated with enzymes natural or not?

ADAMS: Okay. Now here's another one and this is a cereal bar by Kellogg's Nutra Grain. It says naturally and artificially flavored. I saw a guy in the store the other day and he had a magnifying glass that had a light on it. He was looking at the ingredients.

Dr. NESTLE: Oh, good for him. I do the same thing.

ADAMS: And you need it for this one.

Dr. NESTLE: Print is getting smaller and smaller and my eyes are getting worse and worse and it's a bad combination.

ADAMS: Right. Well, there's about 100 things in here.

Dr. NESTLE: At least 100. Well then, you know it's not natural.

ADAMS: Okay, we'll put that one aside. There is this process that Allison Aubrey talked about. High pressure pasteurization. The food is sealed. High pressure is applied, and the bacteria are somewhat neutralized. What about that?

Dr. NESTLE: Well, that's an extension of regular pasteurization. Regular pasteurization heats the - usually milk or juices - to a certain temperature for a certain period of time. And what the high pressure pasteurization allows it to do is to shorten the time because they do it at a higher temperature. I don't see that there's much different.

ADAMS: So you're kind of okay with that?

Dr. NESTLE: I'm okay with that one. I don't like bacteria in my juices or milk, so I'd just as soon have them pasteurized.

ADAMS: You know, farm fresh, I mentioned earlier, used to be right from the farm and somebody's market -

Dr. NESTLE: That's what I think of. That's what I think it means.

ADAMS: Still?

Dr. NESTLE: Straight from the farm.

ADAMS: Okay, but isn't what's going on here simply an updating of regulations that have been out of step for a long time?

Dr. NESTLE: I think the regulations were never meant to deal with the extraordinary number of health claims and processing claims that are on foods right now. Every single food company that makes any kind of food that can be advertised as healthful or as produced according to humane and natural methods is advertising it as such.

The public is extraordinarily confused about what it means. And there's no question that words like natural, healthy, vitamin enriched and that sort of thing sell food products. So to set a level playing field for the sales of fruit products - there's been a lot of pressure on the FDA to come in and try to make some sense out of all of this.

ADAMS: Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat,” and a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. Thank you for talking with us now.

Dr. NESTLE: My pleasure.

NORRIS: And you can find more advice from Marion Nestle at NPR.org. While you're there, you can hear our earlier interview with her and read an excerpt from her book. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.