With the pressures of daily life today, health-conscious folks are trying to fuel themselves with the safest, most nutritious foods. But before you reach for that tempting-looking package of “natural” chow, beware! In the United States, the term “natural” is not regulated and has no official definition. In fact, it’s often applied to products mainly as a marketing ploy. So be a smart consumer and learn the difference between natural and healthy, as evidenced by the following foods.
Pricy sea salt is often promoted as a natural food that’s far superior to ordinary table salt. Some sources even claim that table salt is produced in laboratories. In fact, table salt is mined from deposits left behind when ancient bodies of saltwater dried up. Although sea salt has a slight nutritional advantage over table salt in that it contains 1 percent trace minerals, the two have a similar sodium content. If you must watch your sodium intake, limit your consumption of both these salts and experiment with alternative seasonings.
“Natural sweetener” is a broad term. Even refined sugar – or its evil twin, high-fructose corn syrup – can legally be described as natural. Agave nectar, a natural sweetener which was recently highly praised as a healthful replacement for sugar, has been shown to contain startlingly high levels of fructose: 55-97 percent compared to HFCS’s 55 percent. Stevia is another natural sweetener, which has zero calories and does not affect blood sugar level. It hasn’t been approved for sale in its original form, though, as studies indicate it may cause reproductive problems; the only form currently available is highly refined. Some people also detect an unpleasant-tasting undernote. Honey and maple syrup each offer small amounts of nutrients, together with a distinctive flavor; yet, in terms of calories, they don’t differ much from sugar.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Well, maybe not, depending on how that apple was grown. Apples top the list of pesticide-laden produce known as the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, with over 40 insecticides detected on samples of this iconic American fruit. Go organic when buying these at the store – or head to the New England countryside for an autumn apple-picking excursion. There are a number of u-pick organic farms which use non-toxic and humane forms of pest control. FYI, other fruits on the infamous list include strawberries, grapes, peaches, and imported nectarines.
Although fruit juice may be natural, it’s not the most healthful substitute for fresh fruit. You benefit from the fruit’s vitamin content but lose out on the beneficial fiber in its pulp and skin. Fruit juice is relatively high in calories (111 per cup of OJ, for example) yet not especially filling, so it’s easy to overdo.
There is a glaring problem with products labeled “natural wheat.” The sad truth is that this description does not mean “whole wheat.” In fact even “natural whole wheat” can be misleading, if it doesn’t indicate the actual percentage of whole wheat flour. Some brown breads get their color from molasses (a sugar production byproduct), not from flour that includes the nutritious germ and bran.
Tofu and other soy products were a mainstay of the vegetarian movement a few decades ago. But things have changed. Today’s soy crops are frequently GMO. What’s more, the processing used to make soy market-ready often adds toxins such as aluminum and nitrites to natural soy’s already potent cocktail of anti-nutrients, which block physiological processes like protein digestion and mineral absorption. Fermentation of soy, as in making miso, counteracts these negatives, though.
Herbs can be valuable in restoring and maintaining good health, when used knowledgeably. However, uninformed usage might have the opposite result. The herbs can interact with medications you are taking, reducing their efficacy or causing unwanted side effects (such as chamomile, which tends to increase the risk of bleeding when combined with blood thinners). Some herbs which are harmless to the general population may endanger specific groups. Peppermint, for example, is used to promote digestion and cooling, but it is reported to reduce milk supply when used by nursing mothers.