Inside Our Food

Are “Natural Foods” Better For You? | Opinion

A quick scan of the supermarket shelves will reveal a wide array of different foods labelled ‘natural’. We as consumers tend to prefer said ‘natural foods’, and perceive them to be healthier than their artificial counterparts, and yet there is little consensus as to what actually constitutes ‘natural food’. Why then does this perception persist? What do consumers perceive the meaning of natural to be, and are ‘natural’ foods actually any better for you?

A Natural Bias 

According to a survey conducted by The International Food Information Council in 2019, more than a third of consumers would be swayed in their decision to buy a product if it was labelled as ‘natural food’, and 70% of consumers admitted to perceiving ‘natural food’ products as being healthier. In contrast, only around 20% of us would be more likely to buy a product labelled non-GMO, and less than 20% if the product is certified Organic – two terms which are actually well-defined and regulated. In addition to this preference for foods identified as ‘natural’, there is growing distrust towards anything considered ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’. In 2016 a survey revealed that 75% of consumers are concerned about the impact that artificial ingredients could have on their health.1,2,3

Whilst it is clear why food retailers might be tapping into this bias – who wouldn’t utilise a phrase that has the capacity to increase sales by over 30%! – understanding how consumers came to show such a preference is less clear. Where does this so-called ‘health halo’ come from, and is it rooted in fact or fiction?

Is ‘Natural Food’ Actually Any Better For You?

The notion that natural is healthier or better for you is almost ubiquitous across fields – think about how much the term “natural” is used by the fashion industry when referring to fabrics, by the beauty industry when describing soaps and creams, or the health industry referring to medications that supposedly have fewer side effects or safety concerns. Researchers believe that this derives from an underlying belief of nature being pure and inherently superior to anything ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ created by humans.4

Even when considering like-for-like interchangeable ingredients, people often deem food that has been sweetened naturally or whose flavourings were derived from a natural source, to be the healthier version of an otherwise ‘naughty’ indulgence. Whether it be squash sweetened with fruit juice, or a cake baked with maple syrup instead of cane sugar, can our bodies really tell the difference?

There are, however, many products of nature that are not healthy. In fact there are many things in nature that are downright poisonous. Asbestos, for example, known to cause a rare form of lung cancer, is a group of long, thin mineral fibres originating in rocks. Or snake venom, undeniably a ‘natural’ compound, undeniably poisonous. Arsenic, ionising radiation, mercury, anthrax; the list goes on. Even if we step away from these more powerful killers, and look to some of our favourite foods, many have the capacity to kill if eaten in the wrong way or in the wrong quantity.4,5

In short, it depends on what you mean by healthier. Whilst the slightly less processed form may contain a few more micronutrients than artificial equivalents, when it comes to the macronutrients – assuming you are looking at the sugar component in isolation – sugar is still sugar. Natural or not, it will be broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream. Thus, if you consider ‘healthier’ to mean lower in calories, then you are more than likely going to be disappointed.6

Similarly, over two thirds of the population think that natural forms of caffeine will have a differing effect on the body than their synthetic counterpart. Found in almost 60 different plants, there are numerous natural sources of caffeine, but the synthetic form – regularly used in food, drink and medicine – is virtually indistinguishable, chemically and physiologically, from natural sources of caffeine. Despite being produced in a lab, the synthetic form holds an identical structure to that found in nature, and studies conducted since the 1950s have consistently found  the effects on the body to be no different to that of natural caffeine. Again, if you were to eat or drink the caffeine along with other components of the plant from which it were derived, you might get some added nutrients – but looking at the caffeine component in isolation, to your body, it’s just caffeine.

Well, ‘Artificial’ Foods Can Arguably Be Beneficial

Whether people choose to splash the cash on a seemingly ‘superior’ form of sugar is realistically not a huge concern to me; ultimately the only thing it is going to hurt is their wallets. What is perhaps more concerning about this move away from anything remotely modified by man, is the vast array of ‘artificial’ foods that are not just interchangeable with their unadulterated ‘natural’ form, but that can actually be more beneficial. Here are 4 ‘artificial’ foods or ingredients that help more than they hurt:

1. Artificial Preservatives  

They might not be found in foods plucked straight from the ground, but they do help prevent foods going off before they can be bought or used. This not only reduces food waste, a major burden on our planet, but also ensures that our food stays safe to eat and retains its nutritional value for longer than it would without such additives. Beyond that, certain preservatives can even enhance the nutritional profile: Ascorbic acid, for example, is an antioxidant and antimicrobial, added to a wide variety of foods to extend their shelf-life. Whilst most will recognise the name from product packaging, and perhaps perceive it to be a harmful additive, many might not realise is that ascorbic acid is also known as vitamin C. Whether naturally occurring in the food, plant-based but added during manufacturing, or synthetically produced, the impact it has on both the food and the body remains the same.8

2. Fortified and Functional Foods

Whether it be the addition of calcium to orange juice, folic acid in bread, or iron to cereal, certain micronutrients and minerals are added to staple foods with the sole intention of bolstering our all-too-often deficient diets. Fortification has taken place for decades, but a more modern phenomenon is the development of so-called ‘functional foods’; foods which provide health benefits beyond their traditional nutritional function. This includes, for example, probiotics, for which there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating their capacity to normalise intestinal microflora and act as a prophylactic and/or therapeutic for a range of conditions including diarrhoea, IBS, and amelioration of lactose intolerance. Both fortified and functional foods have the capacity to provide our bodies with nutrients and benefits that would not be seen were we to eat the equivalent food in unadulterated form.9

3. Lab-Grown Meat

If I told you we had found a way to produce enough protein to feed our ever-growing population whilst limiting the impact our diets have on animal suffering and the planet, all the whilst still allowing you to regularly eat steak, surely you would be on board? And yet, when the notion of lab-grown meat – which, down the line, promises to provide just that – is raised, the majority of the population respond with nothing less than disgust. Many would argue that this is almost the epitome of ‘un-natural’ – which is hard to dispute – but I might ask what exactly is natural about current meat production practices. Animal welfare aside, I challenge anyone to consider numerous rounds of chemical and physical preservation techniques that most animal products undergo before they can be considered ‘safe to consume’ as natural?

This is not to imply that these preservatives are anything but positive: It is thanks to pasteurisation that we need not be concerned about contracting tuberculosis from milk, and thanks to nitrites that you probably haven’t suffered botulinum poisoning after eating a sausage. Instead, my point is to highlight that perhaps what we deem to be ‘natural’, isn’t always what it seems, and that so-called ‘natural’ might not necessarily be best. 

4. Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

In much the same way that many omnivores have a distaste for lab-grown meat, many argue against meat-alternatives due to the perceived synthetic nature of such foods. Ironically, the thought of tofu or seitan can send shudders down a meat-eater’s spine and yet many consume both of these foods in slightly different formats under a different name, without batting an eyelid. Tofu is made from soya beans, also known as edamame, whilst seitan is made from wheat protein, also found in bread.

Importantly, however, when it comes to health, both meat-alternatives and novel meat-growing technologies provide an opportunity to enhance the impact that our food has on our health. In a way that is not possible with conventionally farmed meat, both would allow for a manipulation of the macro and micro-nutrient profile, resulting in a protein source that is not just better for the health of animals and the planet, but also better tailored to our own nutritional needs.

Natural Food Doesn’t Mean Healthy Food

This is not to say that all processed, artificial or synthetic foods are the superior option, or that they cannot be somewhat less nutritional than their ‘natural’ counterpart, but rather that ‘natural’ should not be considered a synonym for ‘healthy’, and ‘artificial’ or ‘ synthetic’ should not be a synonym for ‘do not eat me’. Perhaps we need to simply remove ‘natural’ foods from the pedestal they currently sit on and accept that, on occasion, the artificial equivalent could be just as good for you, if not better.

What do you think of "natural" vs "articifical" foods? Let us know in the comments below!

In-Article Illustrations: Andrea Van Den Berg
Article Banner illustration: Cait Mack

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