Naturally Harmful? The Health Claim Con

Food and drink health-claims has long been a contentious subject, with constant debates and conflicting claims leaving consumers disgruntled and confused. A recent study into 2034 foods concluded that while those bearing health claims were marginally healthier than those bearing none, the importance of the health claims to specific foods is usually overrated, and the foods would be overall healthier were they subject to more stringent regulations (Kaur et al 2016).

Perhaps the most popular claim is that to ‘all natural ingredients’, adorning seemingly everything from fruit smoothies to cereal bars. Commonly, the word ‘natural’ seems to act as a buzzword for ‘healthy’, adorning many a label in health food stores – thus attempting to convince the consumer of a product’s health value. However, it is increasingly coming to light that many ingredients qualifying as ‘natural’ are in fact just as harmful and often worse than their processed counterparts – take sugar for example.

The dangers of sugar have come to light in the last few years, and it is becoming common knowledge that natural-sugar laden drinks such as fresh orange juice are often extremely unhealthy.

Like much of the legislation regarding health claims, in the UK and EU legislation, the criteria for use of the term ‘natural’ lacks clarity and coherence. Whilst chemically processed foods and additives cannot be labelled ‘natural’ for obvious reasons, natural additives and processing methods can come under the term. The addition of natural sugars such as honey would therefore be acceptable. This is misleading in two ways – although it may be natural, it would still be considered an additive by many. Honey is also laden with fructose – a potentially damaging natural sugar.

The US description is even less clear, with the FDA website openly stating that it has no exact definition for the use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, it states that ‘the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances. Again, this leaves food subject to damaging ‘natural’ additives, in particular sugars. Salt would also be considered a ‘natural’ additive, the damaging effects of which we are all familiar with.

With the increasing focus on the damaging effects of natural additives such as sugar and salt, is it finally time to push for such regulations to be tightened? In a world where consumers have open access to more health and food information than ever before, it hardly seems to make sense that health claim labelling is still so incoherent and misleading.

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