Marketers have responded to the recent pushes to eat better and lead healthier lives with buzzwords that make their products sound healthy. Words and phrases like "all natural," "organic," "made with real fruit juice," and "made with whole grain" dominate the packages in the aisles of your local grocery store. Be careful though, these words may not mean what you think they do and they certainly aren't the only factor you should consider when you're filling your pantry.
This one is probably the most misleading health food buzzword out there because "natural" likely doesn't mean what you think it means. In fact, according to the FDA, it doesn't mean anything at all – the FDA does not define or regulate the term on food products. The USDA loosely defines what natural means for meat products as not having artificial preservatives (which doesn't mean it doesn't have any preservatives – salt is found naturally in the earth after all), coloring ingredients, and it should be minimally processed. Here's the problem: meat from animals treated with strange hormones while they were alive can still technically be considered natural. Also, the enforcement of companies who make "all natural" claims isn't very stringent, so it's largely up to the producer to define what natural is. My recommendation: ignore any advertisement that says "all natural" and investigate the product on your own by taking a look at the ingredients list.
Food labeled as organic is much more stringently regulated than food labeled as all natural; and the "Certified USDA Organic" seal can only be used after a company undergoes an approval process and frequent inspections by USDA inspectors. There's a lot to the definition of what is and is not organic, but basically produce cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, etc. and the pest control process cannot use certain chemicals. Meat must be fed with organic feed, have access to the great outdoors, and they cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics. Again, that's a very brief definition, but organic food is more what you think of when you think of food being made naturally. If this is important to you, then you should spend the extra money on organic foods and visit Farmer's Markets, but realize that organic is not synonymous with healthy. You can make organic cookies or other organic foods that we would usually consider to be "junk food," and although it may have been made naturally, it is not necessarily good for you.
Made with Real Fruit Juice
This one actually means what it sounds like, but it's usually not as healthy as it sounds. I have yet to find a label that says "made with real fruit juice" without having added sugar on the ingredients list. Here's the other problem with this label: when you're only getting the fruit juice, you tend to lose all the other nutritional benefits of fruit. Take an apple as an example. An apple with the peel has about 5 grams of fiber (depending on the size of the apple), but if you only have a little apple fruit juice, you're not getting any fiber. You're better off with real fruit, not real fruit juice.
Made with Whole Grain
I'm a big proponent of eating whole grains, but that doesn't mean everything with whole grains is healthy. Look for labels that say 100% whole grain – you should still check for sugar, fat and sodium content, but 100% whole grain is a good start. If the label doesn't say anything about what percentage of the product is whole grain, check to see how many grams of whole grain the label says a product is made with (which should be posted) and compare that to the number of grams of carbohydrates on the nutritional label. Finally, you can check the ingredients list to see if the first ingredient listed says something about whole grains (note: an ingredient's list is always listed from the most abundant ingredient to the least abundant ingredient).
The Bottom Line
Always check the nutritional label and ingredient's list. Marketers can't try to deceive you here – they're required by law to post this information and that is well regulated.