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". But what does natural actually mean, and are so-called natural foods actually 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. Despite this, there is no clear, international definition for 'natural food'.  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 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 were 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 can 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 this derives from an underlying belief that nature is 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 cordial sweetened with fruit juice or a cake baked with maple syrup instead of cane sugar, can our bodies really tell the difference?

There are many products of nature that are not healthy. In fact, there are many things in nature that are downright poisonous. Asbestos, known to cause a rare form of lung cancer, is a group of long, thin mineral fibres originating in rocks. Snake venom, undeniably a ‘natural’ compound, is undeniably poisonous. Arsenic, ionising radiation, mercury, anthrax, and 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

Whilst the slightly less processed form may contain a few more micronutrients than artificial equivalents, when it comes to the macronutrients – 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 will likely be disappointed.6

Similarly, over two-thirds of the population think that natural forms of caffeine will have a different 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 plant components from which it was derived, you might get some added nutrients. But looking at the caffeine component in isolation, it’s all just caffeine to your body.

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 be more beneficial.

Here are 4 ‘artificial’ foods or ingredients that can 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 from going off before they can be bought or used. This not only reduces food waste, a significant burden on our planet but also ensures that our food stays safe and retains its nutritional value for longer than it would without such additives. Beyond that, certain preservatives can enhance the nutritional profile. Ascorbic acid, for example, is an antioxidant and antimicrobial, added to various 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 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 to bolster 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’, 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 can provide our bodies with nutrients and benefits that would not be seen if we ate 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 eat steak regularly, 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 responds with nothing less than disgust. 

Many would argue that this is almost the epitome of ‘unnatural’ – 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 the numerous 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 'bad'. Thanks to pasteurisation, we need not be concerned about contracting tuberculosis from milk and thanks to nitrites, 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. 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, 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 could allow for 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.

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

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