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Does ‘natural’ always equal healthy?

It was really interesting to see Tip Top announce last week that it is replacing all its flavours and colours with natural alternatives. It’s a big move for a mainstream company to make, one that’s done clearly in response to customer demand. It seems we generally prefer natural to artificial, even in our treats.

Tip Top has been clear to make no health connection or claim in relation to this move. They know, they say, that ice cream is no health food, and replacing the additives with natural ones – derived from plants, spices, herbs and fruit – isn’t going to make its product range any inherently healthier from a nutrition point of view. Still, it’s a move many of us feel is a positive one. It just feels better.

Interestingly, the term ‘natural’ has a powerful effect on us. I recently attended a fascinating seminar at Auckland University on global food trends. One of the important trends identified was ‘naturality’ – a preference by people for more natural foods.

But what we believe about ‘natural’ isn’t always logical. According to recent German research, 74 per cent of people surveyed thought that ‘natural’ means ‘healthier’.

What’s interesting about this is that the term ‘natural’ on a label doesn’t have a clear meaning. It’s something we see quite often on products that come in to us here at HFG – and I have talked about it regularly in our Healthy Food Guru videos. But who’s to say what it means? There’s no regulation or criteria for it. Does it mean fewer ingredients? Does it mean it has ingredients we recognise? Does it mean it’s a whole food with nothing added? None of these things relate directly to health, although many foods with these characteristics are certainly healthy. But the opposite is also true. Butter, people often say, is natural. But I don’t know any nutritionists who’d recommend eating butter every day. Sugar could be said to be natural, too – and we all know too much of that is not a good idea. It’s the same with salt. Claims abound, but no matter what makers of fancy Himalayan salt or coconut sugar say, those products are really no healthier than the standard white varieties.

When it comes to packaged foods, it pays to be sceptical, especially about claims and images on the front of packaging. If in doubt, turn it over and check and compare the nutrition information panel with similar products on the shelves. This is one of the few places on packaging where marketers have to stick to unembellished facts.

So what are some natural foods that really do live up to the claim? To me, what you might call ‘naturally functional’ foods are at the top of the list. Vegetables and fruit, of course, need no health claims on their ‘packaging’ – they’re 100 per ceent natural and full of benefits. I’d add healthy basics like low-fat milk, oats, brown rice and other grains, along with nuts, fish, chicken and lean meat. Water is an incredibly healthy drink that does us at least as much good as any ‘all-natural’ juice or energy drink. Tea would also be on my list, especially green tea, but you might like to add that other plant-based beverage, coffee, which has benefits of its own.

First published: Jul 2013
Last updated: April 3 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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