Natural foods have gained much attention in recent years with new research demonstrating their generally high levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants may be effective at preventing certain diseases and illnesses. However, the definition of ‘natural food’ remains vague and is often confused with organic. Here, we outline what it means to be a ‘natural food’ and outline the potential health benefits of packing your diet with this type of food over-processed, fried, and refined foods.
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The FDA definition of natural food
Due to the often vague and confusing concept of the ‘natural food’ label, and that it is often used loosely by many food companies without considering the implications, the FDA is seeking to review the use of the term.
To date, no strict rules are determining how a ‘natural food’ is defined. However, the FDA has had a longstanding policy that foods labeled as “natural” must not contain anything artificial. There should be nothing unexpected in the product. Current FDA guidelines are limited as they do not consider production methods or the potential health benefit of the food.
Given that the term ‘natural food’ carries the implication that it is healthy and unprocessed, and often marketed as having particular health benefits, future definitions must consider these parameters. Generally, it is expected that natural food should not be processed in any way including pasteurization, or irradiation. Additionally, any claimed health benefits of natural food must be explored thoroughly.
Currently, the term is open to much misinterpretation and misuse. There is a need for governing bodies, such as the FDA, to update their guidelines over the use of the term. However, generally speaking, it is understood that ‘natural food’ is free from artificial and synthetic additives and ingredients, is unprocessed and is high in nutrients.
It is often thought of in the same vein as organic food, although organic food must meet must stricter criteria to earn that label. Overall, natural foods can be considered to be products that remain unaltered (as nature intended), but may not meet the stricter criteria of also being organic.
Potential benefits of ‘natural food’
‘Natural food’ has become widely popular due to the general public’s growing awareness of the impact of diet on health. Over recent decades research has mounted, demonstrating the numerous benefits of consuming more foods that may be considered ‘natural’ and less food that is processed, fried, or refined.
Examples of natural foods include fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, nuts and seeds, beans, legumes, lentils, quinoa, and wholegrain products. A good way of quickly determining if a food is natural or not, one should consider if humans were able to access a particular food product before the birth of factory processing and ovens.
Often, natural food is considered to be packed full of vitamins and minerals and free of the high levels of salt, sugar, and trans fats that are associated with processed food. For example, more than 100% of a person’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin C can be found in just one cup of red bell peppers, or 165g of orange slices, or 180mg of kiwis. More than your entire day’s worth of selenium can be found in a single Brazil nut.
This richness in vitamins and minerals found in natural foods has been associated with a decreased risk of developing several illnesses and diseases. Given that diets high in sugar and processed foods are linked with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, it is unsurprising that switching these foods to natural foods may provide a health benefit.
In particular, studies have shown that natural foods may promote heart health. Research has revealed that the antioxidants that naturally occur in many natural foods can potentially prevent heart disease. Minerals such as magnesium are especially important in reducing inflammation, a key driver of heart disease.
In addition, foods deemed to be ‘natural’ are generally lower in sugar than processed foods. By filling your diet with low sugar foods, a person may be able to lower their risk of developing diseases associated with high-sugar diets such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and heart disease.
Finally, natural foods are often considered to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Over the decades, inflammation has emerged to be a key player in many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Certain foods, can lower the body’s level of inflammation and potentially protect a person from these illnesses. Such foods include natural including berries, broccoli, avocados, pineapple, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and cherries.
Conversely, junk food (such as fast food and convenience food), refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread and pasta), fried foods (e.g. french fries), processed meats (e.g. bacon, beef jerky, canned meat, salami, hot dogs, smoked meat), and trans fats (e.g. vegetable oil, margarine) are all considered to be inflammatory foods and may contribute to the formation of disease and illness.