The term “natural” has become a big buzzword on processed food packaging. But Consumer Reports ShopSmart says, be aware it doesn’t always mean what you think.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t adequately define what “natural” means, so a manufacturer can make the claim even when a product contains artificial ingredients.
Which explains how foods like Kikkoman soy sauce can boast that it is naturally brewed, yet contain synthetic sodium benzoate, a preservative.
NBC 5 reached out to the makers of Kikkoman about Consumer Reports' findings. This was the company's response:
"Naturally Brewed" refers to the process of making Kikkoman Soy Sauce. For centuries, Kikkoman has been making soy sauce using traditional brewing methods which include fermentation period of up to 6 months. This traditional brewing process results in a savory soy sauce with a complex flavor profile. some other soy sauces on the market today use a chemical process to save time and reduce processing cost. Most consumers prefer soy sauce made using traditional brewing methods. Kikkoman uses the term "Naturally Brewed" to differentiate our produce from those which are made using a chemical process.
A small concentration of sodium benzoate, a preservative used in many food products, is added after the brewing process is complete. This is added to allow consumers to store and use our product for an extended period of time.
It also means Bosco Chocolate Syrup can brag that it’s “All Natural,” but still list high fructose corn syrup the highly processed sweetener as the first ingredient.
And Crystal Light Natural Lemonade sounds wholesome, but it contains things like maltodextrin, artificial coloring agents and BHA, a synthetic preservative.
Even Whole Foods own Doctor Snap soda, which proudly calls itself all natural, also contains artificial caramel coloring, which Consumer Reports’ tests found can contain 4-MEI a possible carcinogen.
NBC 5 reached out to Whole Foods Market about Consumer Reports' findings. This was the company's response:
“Whole Foods Market has always promoted health through healthy eating education. To that end, while we applaud Consumer Reports’ efforts at educating consumers to make healthier choices, we believe that naturally occurring ingredients used as a coloring are not artificial in the same way as purely synthetic ingredients are, like Red #3 or Yellow #5 (which are not acceptable at Whole Foods Market). Caramel color is made primarily of heated/caramelized sugars. As an example, similarly, beet juice is also a natural ingredient that is used for coloring. As always we continue to monitor any emerging research.”
ShopSmart Magazine says there are ways to detect a misleading “natural” label.
Watch out for wording like:
- “Made with Natural Ingredients”
- “Naturally Flavored”
- “Naturally Brewed”
All are meaningless terms that can make food sound wholesome, even if it’s not.
And don’t take labels at face value. You always want to look at the ingredients list. If it contains a bunch of things you can’t pronounce, you probably want to do a little more homework.
Consumers Union, the advocacy wing of Consumer Reports, plans to call for a ban on the use of the word “natural,” on food packaging. Instead it recommends looking for foods that are labeled “organic” a term that is well regulated.