By Erin MacGregor
“All Natural” are perhaps the biggest buzz words of our millennium.
Whether it’s “natural” food, skincare products, medical solutions, or clothing fibres, when you look around today’s marketplace, it’s clear that the popularity of ‘natural is better’ isn’t waning.
This idea that natural is better, is called “the appeal to nature fallacy”, and it reasons that when something is labelled ‘natural’ it is also desirable, morally acceptable, or simply good.
The intention of labelling a product with the claim ‘natural’, is to make us feel good about buying it. Giving consumers a sense of pride when purchasing something is a powerful way to reach them and influence their buying decisions. Food packages, it turns out, are prime advertising real estate.
Over the years, the idea that natural is ‘good’ has also extended to mean natural is ‘healthier’ and ‘safer’. But the fact is, labelling something as ‘natural’ tells us nothing at all about its healthfulness or its safety.
‘Natural’ E. Coli bacteria for example, which occasionally makes its way into the food supply, can be deadly. Whereas synthetic (man-made) folic acid, a vitamin used in many fortified food products, can prevent serious health consequences for unborn children.
In Canada, when it comes to food products labelled ‘natural’, there are regulatory guidelines in place intended to prevent consumers from being misled. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for setting the guidelines for many food label claims, along with enforcing penalties for any food label that is misleading or deceiving.
The CFIA works to protect Canadians from deceptive labelling, and they regularly update their guidelines to reflect this, and also offer a venue for consumers to report labelling concerns. But with thousands of new food products hitting the store shelves each year, it can be an uphill battle to update regulations and enforce penalties for each and every label.
According to the CFIA, food products displaying a ‘natural’ claim, must not:
● contain added vitamin, mineral, nutrient, artificial flavouring agents or food additives.
● have any constituent removed, except the removal of water.
● have been submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state (these processes are described in a shortlist as ‘maximum processes’)
The claims ‘natural ingredients’ or ‘made with natural flavour/ colour’ may still appear on foods made with multiple synthetic or artificial ingredients or submitted to maximum processes, as long as the ingredients in question fall under the ‘natural’ claim guidelines.
This means an ultra-processed snack food labelled ‘made with natural flavours’, may be construed as a better, healthier, or safer choice, simply because of the claim ‘natural’. Yet, in reality this ‘natural’ snack food doesn’t offer any advantages in terms of health or safety over its ultra-processed competitor who doesn’t make the same claim.
Unfortunately, it falls on the consumer to interpret the nuances of these guidelines.
When it comes to making choices about food based on label claims, the best approach for consumers to take is one of skepticism. Understanding that while regulations are in place to protect us from deception, the slick tactics of food marketers will often find ways to circumvent the well-intentioned regulatory guidelines.
Natural can be great. But synthetic can be too.
The important thing to know, is the ingredients used in our food supply are safe, no matter their source. Using the claim ‘natural’ does nothing more than create a niche product, that only serves as a justification for a higher price tag.