Niki Bezzant: It's only natural to keep it natural

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The most natural and healthy foods are those with no packaging at all, found in the produce section of supermarkets.
The most natural and healthy foods are those with no packaging at all, found in the produce section of supermarkets.

What does the word "natural" mean to you? If you're like most people, it's something appealing, especially when it relates to food. We like the idea of freshness and purity, of food that hasn't been messed with. On food packaging the word helps us feel that what's inside is real and healthy.

A survey of US consumers found 62 per cent of people want foods to be "natural". Most also - mistakenly as it turns out - believe that a claim of "natural" has been verified independently.

In fact the word on a food label can mean whatever a marketer wants it to mean, and for those of us navigating our way around the aisles, that can be highly confusing.

A quick scan of products on Countdown online revealed hundreds of foods with "natural" in their names. The largest category is chocolate, sweets and snacks - not something we tend to associate with natural goodness.

Here we find natural corn chips, liquorice, fruit strings, soft jelly lollies and smoothie chews. There's natural icecream, natural cake sprinkles, natural potato chips.

In the drinks area the most common item was, pleasingly, water. But there's also a natural orange fizzy drink.

Sometimes it is used as a default description for plain in flavour, as in the case of yoghurt and crackers. And sometimes it is used as a marketing term - naturally good, 100 per cent natural, all-natural colours, etc.

This can create a minefield for food shoppers. Perhaps that's why the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking to define what "natural" means, and calling for submissions. This is in response to two petitions: one asking that the agency defines the word in food labelling and another asking that it prohibit the term altogether.

Debate in that country centres on some questions that seem ridiculous: should foods with GE ingredients, or foods containing high fructose corn syrup, be labelled as natural, for example.

In New Zealand, there are rules about what needs to be on food labels - nutrition information must be given, ingredients must be listed in a certain order and allergens must be noted - but there are no rules about the use of terms like natural, pure and fresh.

The UK's Food Standards Agency has a set of best practice guidelines for manufacturers which, although not legally binding, are pretty sensible. Applying these to the New Zealand shelves would mean quite a few products here would need re-labelling.

Terms such as "natural goodness", "naturally better", or "nature's way" are confusing and ambiguous and shouldn't be used. Nor should brands use natural or similar terms in their names.

Perhaps this serves to highlight the common-sense knowledge that, really, the most natural and healthy foods are those with no packaging at all, found, naturally, in the produce section.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide magazine.

- Herald on Sunday

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