Flavour of the Week

All Natural, All Good Eh?


flavour-of-the-week-logoImagine this: you are standing in the grocery store trying to make a choice between different products and you see one that advertises “The taste, the colour, the fruity aroma. Follow your nose to this breakfast cereal that’s made with corn, wheat, whole grain oat flour and natural fruit flavouring.” Sounds pretty good! Too bad the product is Kellogg’s Fruit Loops and sugar is the first ingredient. [As an aside, check out their website – talk about advertising to children!]

Forget T.V.! The internet is the new (largely unregulated) frontier.  What exactly does “natural” mean and are these products required to be healthier? In honour of the Canada Day holiday we thought we’d take a look at some Canadian food regulations surrounding natural, organic and genetically modified foods. You can’t say we don’t have fun at No Baloney!

Two questions come to mind when we see companies go out of their way to advertise the fact that the foods contain natural ingredients, flavourings etc.

  1. Does advertising on the front of package that a product contains natural ingredients, flavours or colours sway the consumer’s decision in that product’s favour?
  2. What does “natural” mean from a regulatory stand point?

Question number one depends on the individual but we are willing to bet that many people said yes. That is, of course, why companies advertise their products in this way and charge accordingly! There is something inherent in the word “natural” that leads us to believe the product is by default healthy and better for you… but is this actually the case? For the answer to question number two we turn to food regulations.

Discussing regulations is always difficult because it changes depending on the country and ever evolving government regulations. From Health Canada’s perspective:

“A natural food or ingredient of a food is not expected to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive.
A natural food or ingredient of a food does not have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water.” (1)

Based on these criteria one would be inclined to say that, yes, natural is better and although this may be the case, it is not always true. It is still entirely possible to have natural ingredients that are less than desirable. For some really scary examples check out Bruce Bradley’s post on some food additives that can qualify as all natural. Here’s a teaser: beaver anal glands, cow’s stomach and beetle juice are on the list.

It is also possible that some natural foods are still unhealthy overall due to their high sodium, fat, or sugar content or low amounts of vitamins, minerals and fibre. There are many brands of chips, cookies, granola bars, breakfast cereals that fall into this category, just to name a few.

What about organic foods? Importantly, there is a difference between natural and organic. The criteria for organic are fairly rigorous which is why you will often see meats advertised as “natural” rather than “organic”. Again from Health Canada:

To be certified [as organic], operators must develop an organic production system based on the Canadian Organic Standards and have their products certified by a certification body accredited under the Canada Organic Regime. [Part 2, OPR]” (1)

Again, you need to look at the ingredients. Organic cane sugar is really no more healthy than plain, old regular white sugar.

What about genetically modified foods? Another claim that can be made is when a food is not the product of genetic engineering (you can also claim that a food is GMO, but I’ve never seen such a claim and can’t imagine why any company would voluntarily do so!). In Canada, foods that have been genetically modified do NOT need to be labeled as a general rule; however, companies can voluntarily declare their foods as non-genetically modified. In order to do so Health Canada states:

“In Canada, voluntary claims on foods that are and are not products of genetic engineering may be made provided such claims are truthful, not misleading, not deceptive, and not likely to create an erroneous impression of a food’s character, value, composition, merit or safety; and in compliance with all other requirements set out in the Food and Drugs Act” (1).

In short, your food may be genetically modified unless it says it isn’t.

No Baloney’s advice. Always read the standard nutrition label and ingredients list for a product. Don’t get suckered into the quick decision and swayed by the fancy labeling on the front of packages. Keep in mind that just because something is “natural” or even “organic” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Candy made from 100% organic, natural ingredients is still candy and should be treated as such. In fact, it’s probably best to save your money and buy the cheap, heavily processed versions in these cases and to do so very infrequently.

Happy Canada Day!

References:

1. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2012) Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising Chapter 4. Retrieved June 17, 2012 from http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/labeti/guide/

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