Unless you have a green thumb, lots of outdoor space, and the time to grow your own grub, sticking to a diet free of processed ingredients can be challenging. (If you are that person, can we come over for dinner?) Otherwise, you do your best, eating whole foods whenever possible, and opting for the most unadulterated, natural options you can find when you buy from the box or the bag. Or so you think.
The problem is, labels can be misleading. You’d need several pairs of hands to count the number of “100% Natural” claims you see in just one aisle of the supermarket. That’s because neither the US Food and Drug Administration nor the Federal Trade Commission have a strict definition for the term; the FDA says it “has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” But so-called “natural” foods can still contain a wide range of processed sweeteners, lab-produced “natural” flavors and colors, additives and preservatives.
Here, we give you 7 ways to figure out what’s natural and what’s not.
Many granola-bar brands contain processed sweeteners, such as corn syrup, fructose, and invert sugar, and “natural flavors”—an umbrella term for flavors derived from natural sources, but which are often processed in a lab like artificial flavors. Then there’s cellulose, an ingredient made from nontoxic wood pulp or cotton, that’s added to up the fiber content in your bar (read more about it in our list of the 7 Grossest Things In Your Food). For a far more natural snack, set aside 10 minutes of prep time and bake your own healthy energy bars.back to menu ↑
Natural and artificial flavors and processed sweeteners abound in many packaged yogurts, so don’t assume that blueberry flavor (not to mention the purplish hue) is coming only from real blueberries. As always, scrutinize the label, and buy organic if you want to avoid dairy from cows given artificial growth hormones.back to menu ↑
Non-dairy and soy cheeses
Cheese substitutes often contain added colors and flavors to make them more cheese-like. One common ingredient? Carrageenan, a processed carbohydrate that may upset some people’s stomachs. Additionally, soy is one of the most commonly genetically modified crops around—roughly 94% of the soy grown in the US is GMO, in fact—so if you’re wary of eating them, make sure you’re buying organic. (For more on why GMOs, read Foods As Nature Made Them.)back to menu ↑
Bottled iced tea
Black and green teas are loaded with antioxidants, and herbal brews can help digestion, an upset stomach, even rattled nerves. But if you check the ingredients list of your “all-natural” bottled iced tea, you may discover a few surprise ingredients in addition to leaves and water. Some sweetened teas rely on high-fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. And if you’re sipping a fruit-flavored tea, you likely won’t find real lemons, raspberries, or peaches in there, but instead “natural flavors.”back to menu ↑
“All natural” shows up on lots of salad dressing labels, but take a look at the extra-long ingredients lists and you could find ingredients that are anything but. If you don’t want to spoil the healthfulness of your salad, try mixing your own dressing at home with a little extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.back to menu ↑
Bad news: Nature’s perfect sweetener isn’t always 100% natural. The jarred honeys you’ll find in an average grocery store have all undergone various levels of processing, and it’s hard to know how much just from looking at the labels. In fact, according to research by Food Safety News,most store-bought honey isn’t technically honey at all, because virtually all of the natural pollen has been filtered out. For truly natural honey—and all the immune-boosting and allergy-fighting benefits that come with it—head to a farmer’s market, where you can buy it raw from local beekeepers.back to menu ↑
Many so-called “all natural” ice creams contain way more than milk, eggs, and sugar—such as “natural flavors,” modified starches (often used as thickening agents), and juice concentrates (used as flavors and sweeteners). Not exactly how you’d churn it at home, right? If you’re picking up a pint at the grocery store, look for one made with a short list of whole ingredients.