Is "100% Natural" Really Natural? Don't Bet On It.

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Is "100% Natural Really Natural? Don't Bet On It.

We’ve all seen them. Perhaps it’s a box of cereal, or a package of breakfast bars. It’s the “100% natural” that catches our eye, and then, of course, there’s that idyllic image of cornfields or a stalk of wheat, the sun rising over some distant hills perhaps. We can almost hear the bees buzzing in their hives (these products are made with honey, of course!) and the crow of a rooster. Certainly this is healthy stuff, just the thing for my family to grab before we race out the door!

Seriously, though . . .when you see “natural” on that granola bar, or that appealing image on the cereal box, what do you think? That this is one super healthy food for you and your family? That you can be sure it was made only from wholesome, organic ingredients?

What about “natural” on a package of chicken thighs or ground beef? Were those animals fed only pesticide-free, organic feed? And were they not fed any antibiotics or growth hormones?

Finally, for us pet parents, what about “natural” pet food or treats? What do ingredients like “meal” and “byproducts” mean anyway, never mind those ingredients I can’t even pronounce, for Pete's sake?!

Sadly, terms like “all natural,” “100% natural,” or just plain “natural” don’t necessarily mean healthy or even safe. In fact, that granola bar may be as unhealthy as a Twinkie (well...almost), the chicken loaded with antibiotics, and the pet food made from tainted ingredients (do we really want to serve our pets food that would be dangerous for us to eat??). And for those of us concerned about our planet, there is certainly no guarantee that the companies behind these products are doing anything to monitor and minimize their impact on the environment.

Does “natural” mean organic?

For many of us, the word “natural” is synonymous with “organic.” When it comes to food, whether for humans or pets, nothing could be further from the truth. “Natural” isn’t even synonymous with “good for you” or “healthy,” yet simply seeing the word on a label can convince someone to buy. It’s no wonder many companies have jumped on the “natural bandwagon” and have been rewarded with huge sales as a result – an impressive $43 billion in 2013.

For the sake of all our family members, furry, feathered or otherwise, it behooves us to know the difference between organic and natural.

Thankfully, the FDA has set standards for the use of the term “organic,” and those standards apply to pet foods as well. The USDA organic seal tells you the following:

  • meat, eggs and dairy products are free of antibiotics or growth hormones;
  • produce is grown without “most conventional pesticides” and fertilizers that are free of synthetic or sewage components;
  • the product contains no genetically modified organisms.

The USDA organic seal on multi-ingredient products tells you that at least 95% of the ingredients are organic.  If just 70% of ingredients are organic, those individual ingredients may be labeled as such. Most organic pet food products fall into the latter category. You can check this out in more detail on the USDA website.

While organic has been pretty well defined for the consumer, a word or two of caution is in order.

A food that is organic may still be unhealthy for pets or people. How is that possible?

First, note the reference to “95% of ingredients,” and produce that is free of “most conventional pesticides.” This leaves the door open to the use of other unsafe herbicides and pesticides as well as the addition of ingredients that are not organic.

Second, even a 100% organic product can be unhealthy. For example, those chips you binge on every afternoon may be organic, but they may also be loaded with salt, fats and sugars. Better to snack on fruits and vegetables! As far as your pets are concerned, you want to be sure they are getting the proper balance of nutrients, and that means choosing a trustworthy manufacturer. You will find some suggestions below.

Then what does “natural” mean??

Sadly, in our country, the term “natural” means, well, virtually nothing, and it certainly carries no assurance that the item is organic or even healthy. The FDA has created no regulations for the use of “natural,” and doesn’t object to companies putting it on a label as long as the food contains no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Sadly, this leaves plenty of room for other nasty stuff.

For example . . .

For years, General Mills has labeled its Nature Valley granola bars, crispy squares and trail mix bars as “100 per cent natural.” They recently settled a 2012 lawsuit that claimed this label was misleading, since their products contain genetically modified and processed ingredients. Things like corn syrup and maltodextrin are not considered natural even by the FDA; so more than 25 Nature Valley products are no longer labeled as 100 per cent natural. Chalk one up for the good guys.

Apparently more lawsuits are in the works against companies like PepsiCo Inc., Campbell Soup Co., Ben & Jerry’s (Ben & Jerry's?!? Sigh.), Kashi, Skinnygirl and several other food and drink brands.

What’s a Consumer to Do?

There’s no way around it. If you want to be sure your family and your pets are eating healthy food and avoiding exposure to chemicals in cleaning products, you must educate yourself. If this conjures up images of sitting at your computer for hours scrolling through hundreds of pages on the Internet, take heart. We'll get you started by giving you a few reliable sources of information below.

In the meantime, if you want to feed your family and your pets healthier, more natural food, here are a few basic guidelines.

  • Buy organic whenever possible. If organic is simply too expensive for you, then be selective. For example, I happen to love raisins and consume them daily – in my (very sizable) salad and as a sweet alternative when I’m craving a Reese’s peanut butter cup -- so I pay the price for organic raisins. I also depend on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to tell me which produce has the least pesticide residue. Their Clean Fifteen for 2014, for example, puts avocados at the top of their least-tainted list, with just 1% of samples showing any detectable pesticides. Grapes, on the other hand, land in the top three of their Dirty Dozen, with a single grape testing positive for a whopping 15 pesticides. Yikes. You can download a PDF version of the EWG Shopper's Guide on their website. By the way, grapes and raisins are toxic for both dogs and cats, so handle them carefully!
  • Use (lots) less sugar.  That holds true for people and pets. Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, partly because it is hidden in products we wouldn’t consider sweet, and because sugar is considered a natural ingredient. Go to Rodale’s website and search “sugar,” and you’ll find a huge list of articles on what’s wrong with sugar. Be sure you read labels to look for other hidden sources of sugar. Apart from regular table sugar, say no to high fructose corn syrup, also found in a myriad of products (but thankfully banned for use in organic food). Even the fairly new kid on the block,agave nectar, may not be as healthy a sugar substitute as originally thought, so use in moderation.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners including saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal and Nutrasweet) and sucralose (Splenda). While these products are regulated by the FDA, there are concerns about the effects of long-term use, particularly with children. Loved by diabetics as an alternative to table sugar,recent studiesseem to indicate that these products may actually raise blood sugar levels.
  • Raw honey, a healthy alternative sweetener.
  • Get acquainted with the "good guys" among sweeteners.
    • Stevia, a plant-derived sweetener that is 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, is haled by some as the safest sweetener around. Sadly, it isn't great for baking.
    • Sugar alcohols include xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol. Organic is best and do keep to small amounts to avoid GI distress. Xylitol, found in chewing gum, is extremely toxic to dogs, even in small doses. Dog parents would do well to avoid having any products with this in the house.
    • Raw local honey, real maple syrup (no corn syrup or "maple flavoring" impostors, please!) and blackstrap molasses are all nutritional powerhouses, for people and pets.
    • Make your own!  Sadly, we have become a nation of busy, over-committed people. As a result, we often depend on convenience foods like Hamburger Helper to get dinner on the table.  To avoid lots of processed foods with unhealthy ingredients, it's best to shop the outer perimeter of the supermarket -- produce, dairy, meat, poultry and fish -- and avoid as much of the canned and boxed stuff as possible. Not all of it is bad, of course, and not all of the "outer perimeter" is guaranteed to be truly natural! So be sure you read labels and get educated!

Feeding your pet safe, truly natural pet food

When it comes to pet food, once again, “organic” is clearly defined whereas “natural” is not. The American Feed Control Officials  (AAFCO) define and establish regulations for pet food and feed ingredients. They've approved suggested guidelines for use of the term -- i.e. unprocessed and no chemical additives -- but they are suggestions only and may still allow for questionable ingredients.  The best advice is to be sure the manufacturer has a clearly articulated definition of what they mean by “natural.”

Only Natural Pet and Honest Kitchen, for example, expect their pet food ingredients to be “human grade.” Technically speaking, that means they must be suitable for human consumption and made in a human food processing facility. Dorothy Hunter, owner of Paws Natural Pet Emporium, demonstrated her commitment to human grade by eating only dog, cat and bird food and treats from her store for 30 days. Yup, she’s that confident that her pet products are the best they can be for her furred and feathered customers!

Other standards to look for among natural pet product manufacturers include made in the USA, made with minimal ingredients (the shorter the ingredient list, the better!) and, of course, no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives (if you can’t pronounce it, chances are it’s not a healthy ingredient!).

Where to go for trustworthy information

When it comes to our family's health -- people and pets, of course! -- it's important to get reliable information. The Internet is loaded with resources, but not all websites are created equal. Here are some websites you can trust to help you and your pets start eating naturally:

  • Rodale, a pioneer in organic farming and gardening, and publisher of Prevention Magazine, has a great website with numerous articles on healthy living, for people and pets. Definitely check them out and sign up for their emails!
  • Go to the Environmental Working Group’s website and click on “consumer guides.” You’ll find all kinds of good information on eating and living naturally.
  • Holistic eBook download
  • The Whole Dog Journal is an excellent resource for dog parents. To have full access to their website, you must subscribe to their paper journal; but it’s worth every penny. As a subscriber, you can download their Approved Dry Dog Foods listing for 2014 as well as their Canned Food Review. Their lists are extensive – and include companies that also make cat food -- but to get you dog and cat parents started, here are a few names they recommend: Blue Buffalo, Canidae, Castor & Pollux, Evanger’s, Halo, and Newman’s Own Organics. Check them out!
  • Finally, for general guidelines for choosing pet food, our articles will help you decipher pet food labels and will give you some tips for healthy snacksfrom the produce aisle.  And don't miss our free eBook,Holistic Pet Care Resource Guide-- over 30 pages of websites, books, magazines and even recipes that will help you "go natural!"

We love to hear from you, so leave a comment below!

SOURCES for this article:

Christine Olley. “What’s Really in Your ‘Natural’ Granola Bars?” www.rodalenews.com

Fredrica Syren. “What Does ‘Natural’ Really Mean?” www.green-mom.com

Peter Laufer. “Five Myths About Organic Food.” www.washingtonpost.com

Tennille Tracy and Annie Gasparro. “General Mills in Settlement Over ‘100% Natural’ Claim.”www.wsj.com