Looking Behind the 'Natural' Label on Foods

Noah Adams talks with nutritionist Marion Nestle about what it really means when foods are labeled "natural." Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. Her latest book is What To Eat.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Back in the summer, we talked with Marion Nestle about some of these food matters. She teaches nutrition and food safety at New York University, and she wrote the book. It's called, "What to Eat."

Ms. Nestle, welcome back.

Dr. MARION NESTLE (New York University): Nice to be here.

ADAMS: You know, the term organic we've wrestled with in the past. That's hard enough to deal with. But it seems like natural could be even more problematic for us?

Dr. NESTLE: Well, organic is actually very simple to deal with. It's governed by rules and the companies that produce organic foods have to follow those rules and they're inspected to make sure that they do. So nothing could be simpler. It's black or white. They either do it or they don't.

ADAMS: Now when you go to the store, do you have any difficulty with natural? Natural is all over the place. It's almost like - the one I like is farm fresh. They like to use that one.

Dr. NESTLE: Well, I just find it entertaining. I mean, I sort of collect the terms. I find them hilarious because they're meaningless and yet they sell food. And I think somebody who isn't really up on FDA and USDA regulations will see the word natural and think that's really good.

And of course, the people who don't like organics - and there are many - feel that natural is better than organic, which it may or may not be, and prefer to use natural because it leaves them so much more wiggle room.

ADAMS: The producers like to use the word.

Dr. NESTLE: The producers and also the people who feel that organic rules don't go far enough.

ADAMS: So natural sort of works for them.

Dr. NESTLE: Yes, whatever they choose it to mean, as long as it's truthful and not misleading.

ADAMS: Back in the summer, Melissa Block, you recall, brought some yogurt in to talk with you about. We should point out you're in New York and we're in Washington, so you can't see. We have brought today some packages from the grocery store. And I have one which may work. Clearly, here's an example. It's Nature's Promise chicken and it says right on the cover all natural. No antibiotics administered. Fat and all vegetable diet. No growth stimulants or hormones.

Dr. NESTLE: Okay. The chicken wouldn't have hormones anyway, so that's a gratuitous statement and the rest of it you take on face value. There's no inspection system to back it up.

ADAMS: Okay, so this would be natural.

Dr. NESTLE: That would be natural.

ADAMS: All right. Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars. Right on the box it says 100 percent natural. Excellent source of whole grain. What should I look for here?

Dr. NESTLE: The whole grain as a high ingredient on the ingredient list would be where I would start. I don't know what they mean by natural. Maybe it means that no artificial fibers had been added. It would be hard to know without seeing the ingredient list.

ADAMS: Okay. Midway down the ingredient list - at least not at the top - is high fructose corn syrup.

Dr. NESTLE: Right. Now is that natural or not? Ooh. That's a wonderful question. High fructose corn syrup is made by taking corn starch and using several kinds of enzymes in order to convert the starch to sugars, so that's an enzymatic process that does occur in nature. It occurs in your mouth, for example. I wouldn't call it natural if it's in the laboratory. So that's one of the points of debate. Would you consider something that's been treated with enzymes natural or not?

ADAMS: Okay. Now here's another one and this is a cereal bar by Kellogg's Nutra Grain. It says naturally and artificially flavored. I saw a guy in the store the other day and he had a magnifying glass that had a light on it. He was looking at the ingredients.

Dr. NESTLE: Oh, good for him. I do the same thing.

ADAMS: And you need it for this one.

Dr. NESTLE: Print is getting smaller and smaller and my eyes are getting worse and worse and it's a bad combination.

ADAMS: Right. Well, there's about 100 things in here.

Dr. NESTLE: At least 100. Well then, you know it's not natural.

ADAMS: Okay, we'll put that one aside. There is this process that Allison Aubrey talked about. High pressure pasteurization. The food is sealed. High pressure is applied, and the bacteria are somewhat neutralized. What about that?

Dr. NESTLE: Well, that's an extension of regular pasteurization. Regular pasteurization heats the - usually milk or juices - to a certain temperature for a certain period of time. And what the high pressure pasteurization allows it to do is to shorten the time because they do it at a higher temperature. I don't see that there's much different.

ADAMS: So you're kind of okay with that?

Dr. NESTLE: I'm okay with that one. I don't like bacteria in my juices or milk, so I'd just as soon have them pasteurized.

ADAMS: You know, farm fresh, I mentioned earlier, used to be right from the farm and somebody's market -

Dr. NESTLE: That's what I think of. That's what I think it means.

ADAMS: Still?

Dr. NESTLE: Straight from the farm.

ADAMS: Okay, but isn't what's going on here simply an updating of regulations that have been out of step for a long time?

Dr. NESTLE: I think the regulations were never meant to deal with the extraordinary number of health claims and processing claims that are on foods right now. Every single food company that makes any kind of food that can be advertised as healthful or as produced according to humane and natural methods is advertising it as such.

The public is extraordinarily confused about what it means. And there's no question that words like natural, healthy, vitamin enriched and that sort of thing sell food products. So to set a level playing field for the sales of fruit products - there's been a lot of pressure on the FDA to come in and try to make some sense out of all of this.

ADAMS: Marion Nestle, author of “What to Eat,” and a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. Thank you for talking with us now.

Dr. NESTLE: My pleasure.

NORRIS: And you can find more advice from Marion Nestle at NPR.org. While you're there, you can hear our earlier interview with her and read an excerpt from her book.

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Nutritionist Tackles Serious Business of 'What to Eat'

Cover of What to Eat

Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and go easy on junk food. These are author and nutritionist Marion Nestle's basic principles for a good diet.

The rules seem easy enough. But as Nestle argues in her book What to Eat, actually following them and making smart decisions about food can be difficult. In part, she says, consumers face the challenges of an "enormous gap" in information — and a food industry that spends $36 billion a year on marketing.

Nestle explains how manufacturers have turned yogurt from a food that's "pretty healthy" into a dessert, the ethics of marketing to children, and what she would do to make it easier to eat healthy in America.

Excerpt: 'What to Eat'

From the introduction to What to Eat:

I began my research (and that is just what it was) by visiting supermarkets of all kinds and taking notes on what they were selling, section by section, aisle by aisle. I looked at the products on those shelves just as any shopper might, and tried to figure out which ones made the most sense to buy for reasons of taste, health, economy, or any number of social issues that might be of concern. Doing this turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined. For one thing, it required careful reading of food labels, which, I can assure you, is hard work even for nutritionists. Science and politics make food labels exceptionally complicated, and they often appear in very small print. I found it impossible to do any kind of comparative shopping without putting on reading glasses, I frequently had to use a calculator, and I often wished I had a scale handy so I could weigh things.

The Fundamentals of Supermarket Design

Supermarkets dearly wish they could expose you to every single item they carry, every time you shop. Terrific as that might be for your walking regimen, you are unlikely to endure having to trek through interminable aisles to find the few items you came in for — and retailers know it. This conflict creates a serious dilemma for the stores. They have to figure out how to get you to walk up and down those aisles for as long as possible, but not so long that you get frustrated. To resolve the dilemma, the stores make some compromises — but as few as possible. Overall, supermarket design follows fundamental rules, all of them based firmly on extensive research. — Marion Nestle

  • Place the highest-selling food departments in the parts of the store that get the greatest flow of traffic -- the periphery. Perishables -- meat, produce, dairy, and frozen foods -- generate the most sales, so put them against the back and side walls.
  • Use the aisle nearest the entrance for items that sell especially well on impulse or look or smell enticing -- produce, flowers, or freshly baked bread, for example. These must be the first things customers see in front or immediately to the left or right (the direction, according to researchers, doesn't matter).
  • Use displays at the ends of aisles for high-profit, heavily advertised items likely to be bought on impulse.
  • Place high-profit, center-aisle food items sixty inches above the floor where they are easily seen by adults, with or without eyeglasses.
  • Devote as much shelf space as possible to brands that generate frequent sales; the more shelf space they occupy, the better they sell.
  • Place store brands immediately to the right of those high-traffic items (people read from left to right), so that the name brands attract shoppers to the store brands too.
  • Avoid using "islands." These make people bump into each other and want to move on. Keep the traffic moving, but slowly.
  • Do not create gaps in the aisles that allow customers to cross over to the next one unless the aisles are so long that shoppers complain. If shoppers can escape mid-aisle, they will miss seeing half the products along that route.

Supermarkets turn out to be deeply fascinating, not least because even the smallest ones sell thousands of products. Much about these stores made me intensely curious. Why, I wondered, do they sell this and not that? Why are entire aisles devoted to soft drinks and snack foods? What do the pricing signs mean, and how do they work? Why is it so hard to find some things, but not others? Are there any genetically modified or irradiated foods among the fruits and vegetables? What does "Certified Organic" mean, can it be trusted, and is it worth the higher price? Is soy milk healthier than cow's milk? If an egg is "United Egg Producers Certified," is it better? Is it safe to eat farmed fish or, for that matter, any fish at all? Is it safe to eat take-out foods? If a sugary cereal sports a label saying it is whole grain, is it better for you? Does it make any real nutritional difference whether you buy white or whole wheat bread?

The answers to these questions might seem obvious, but I did not find them so. To arrive at decisions, I measured, counted, weighed, and calculated, and read the tiniest print on product labels. When I still did not understand something, I talked to section managers and store clerks. When they asked why I wanted to know (which they often did), I explained what I was doing and gave them my business card. If they could not answer my questions, I called the consumer affairs numbers on product labels, and sometimes talked to regional or national managers. I talked to farmers, farmers' market managers, product makers, food company executives, agriculture specialists, organic inspectors, fish inspectors, trade organization representatives, and university scientists. I went on field trips to places that roast coffee, bake bread, and package groceries for delivery. And I spent months searching the Internet and reading books, unearthing articles in my files, and examining trade and professional publications.

I tell you this not so much to impress you with the extent of the research as to explain that this is the kind of effort it took me to figure out what was going on, and I am supposed to know about such things. If you have trouble dealing with supermarkets, it is for a good reason. You need to know an amazing amount about our food system and about nutrition to make intelligent choices, but most of this information is anything but obvious. It is not supposed to be obvious. Supermarkets have one purpose and one purpose only: to sell food and make a profit, and as large a profit as possible. Your goals are more complicated: you want foods that are good for your health, but you also want them to taste good, to be affordable, to be convenient to eat, and to reflect social values that you might care about. In theory, your goals could overlap with the normal business interests of supermarkets. After all, they do sell plenty of inexpensive, convenient, tasty foods that are good for you. But in practice, you and the supermarket are likely to be at cross-purposes. The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for your health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices.

This conflict begins with dietary advice, much of which is hard to interpret. What, for example, does it really mean to "Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups" as advised by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued in 2005? Or to "know your fats" as advised by the 2005 version of the pyramid food guide? As I explained in Food Politics, government agencies cannot issue unambiguous dietary advice to eat this but not that without offending powerful industries. This is too bad, because nutrition is not "mission impossible." Its basic principles are simple. You need enough energy (measured in calories) and nutrients, but not too much of either. The range of healthful nutrient intake is broad, and foods from the earth, tree, or animal can be combined in a seemingly infinite number of ways to create diets that meet health goals. Think, for example, of how different the traditional diets are from Italy (pasta based, higher fat) and Japan (rice based, low fat), yet both are as healthful as can be.

Where diets get confusing is in the details: so many nutrients, so many foods, so many diseases, and so many conflicting research studies about one or another of them. The attention paid to single nutrients, to individual foods, and to particular diseases distracts from the basic principles of diet and health, but is understandable. You choose foods one by one, and those diseases affect you. Single nutrients and foods are easier to talk about than messy dietary patterns. And they are much easier to study. But you are better off paying attention to your overall dietary pattern than worrying about whether any one single food is better for you than another.

Excerpted from What to Eat by Marion Nestle. Copyright (c) 2006 by Marion Nestle. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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