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 U.S. 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."
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But hold up: Without getting so much as a wrist slap, so-called "natural" foods can still contain a wide range of processed sweeteners, lab-produced "natural" flavors and colors, additives and preservatives.
(For a guide to what's actually good for you, check out Prevention's Healthiest Food Awards.)
Lately, though, some brands' health halos have been showing some tarnish. General Mills currently faces a lawsuit over claims its "100% Natural" Nature Valley granola bars contain two processed ingredients—maltodextrin and high maltose corn syrup—that don't exist in nature. And Snapple recently beat a suit that took issue over the high-fructose corn syrup in its "natural" drinks (the company has since introduced recipes with real sugar).
But those are just two examples—unfortunately, there are many others. Here, we take a look at the ingredients in some of your favorite "natural" foods, so you can decide for yourself what's real and what's not.
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What could be more natural than granola, you ask? Well, unless you're baking it yourself with whole ingredients, plenty. While many granola-bar brands have removed high-fructose corn syrup from their products in response to consumer concern, a laundry list of other less-than-natural ingredients remain, including processed sweeteners such as corn syrup, fructose, and invert sugar, and the vague "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). Yum?
More: Fuel Your Day With Grain-Free Granola
The ultimate health food, right? Not always. 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.
Non-Dairy and Soy Cheeses
Not surprisingly, "natural" cheese substitutes often contain added colors and flavors to make them more, well, 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 percent of the soy grown in the U.S. is GMO, in fact—so if you're wary of frankenfoods, make sure you're buying organic. (For more on why GMOs are suspect, read Foods As Nature Made Them.)
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