Saturday, July 07, 2007

When Is Natural Food Natural?

My husband and I like to tell the story of the first time he met my parents. We had to take separate flights to get to their house and his arrived late at night. I wanted to have something on hand for him to eat when he got in so my parents wouldn't have to worry about it.

"Just get me stuff for a PB&J," he said.

My parents are aduki beans and brown rice kinda people. They eat fruit for dessert. They didn't have the makings for a PB&J

So I picked up a few things, including the kind of bread he liked, Oroweat's Oatnut.

After the initial "wonderful to meet you," we settled into the kitchen while my husband ate his sandwich. My mother picked up the loaf of Oroweat on the table, turned it over to read the ingredients and announced,

"This stuff could kill you."

So much for impressing your future mother in-law.

My husband would say later,

"I thought it was natural. It says it has oats and nuts!"

What he didn't know is that it also contained high fructose corn syrup.

In Sugar Coated, San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Kim Severson, writes about the unexpected presence of high fructose corn syrup in our food:
"Because high fructose corn syrup mixes easily, extends shelf-life and is as much as 20 percent cheaper than other sources of sugar, large-scale food manufacturers love it. It can help prevent freezer burn, so you'll find it on the labels of many frozen foods. It helps breads brown and keeps them soft, which is why hot dog buns and even English muffins hold unexpected amounts. "
Its hard to know what is "healthy" and "natural" based on labels. The Star-Ledger reported yesterday that a New Jersey woman filed a suit against Snapple because their labels say that their drinks are "all natural" and "made from the best stuff on Earth," but they contain high fructose corn syrup.

Even the organic label can be hard to trust, not to mention the food from the 180 Chinese food factories that were shut down, "after investigators found illegal ingredients being added to food products. The ingredients included 'mineral oils derived from the processing of petroleum, paraffin, formaldehyde and the carcinogenic malachite green, a synthetic dye used to color fabrics.'"

It's no wonder that eating local, organic food is becoming increasingly popular.

But how do you do you eat locally? It sounds kind of daunting doesn't it? I think so.

Last spring Treehugger shared a number of resources in its post, "Get Ready for Earth Day: Eat Local Food." I thought the two most helpful sites were Local Harvest, a web site you can use to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, and 100 Mile Diet, a site and blog, created by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who only ate food grown within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver, British Columbia for one year. They recently published a book about their experience called Plenty, which I think I'm going to add to my summer reading list.

If you want to get really inspired by the yumminess of eating locally, check out the show The Endless Feast on PBS this summer (air times vary). Eight hosts, including the authors of Grub, Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, meet local farmers and eat their food at "feasts" in the US and British Columbia.

Sustainable Table, the nonprofit program that produced The Meatrix and the Eat Well Guide will be taking off on a similar trip next month, the Eat Well Guided Tour. They will travel in a bio-fueled bus approximately 5,000 miles in 38 days, stopping in over 25 cities on their way to the Farm Aid concert in New York City. You can join the tour online or on the road.

Eating local organic food is not only good for the environment (less fuel is used to transport the food), and for the local economy, but hopefully you'll have enough information about what you buy to know if it is truly "natural."

Do you try to eat locally? What have been the successes and challenges? What resources and tips can you share for people who want to eat locally, but don't know where to start?

Photo Credit: Grocery Story by About What Rhymes with Nicole.


  1. Excellent post, Britt. "Natural" has unfortunately become a free for all in label literacy which the FDA and FTC is being pressured to fix. (see CSPI lawsuit on Capri Sun, etc.)

    At Shaping Youth we do a whole counter-marketing program to kids on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as “liquid candy”, e.g.

    Here's a sample list of grocery items with HFCS from the Accidental Hedonist, a fast food HFCS list from the Food Facts blog, and UCSF research that suggests central nervous system insulin resistance with fast food, and implication that HFCS shifts metabolism that governs appetite control, prompting an insatiable urge for ‘more.’

    It’s cheaper than table sugar, so companies use it to increase product profitability, stabilize freshness and extend shelf life, so it’s virtually EVERYwhere in food these days, not just pouch drinks & such.

    Part of Shaping Youth’s label literacy ‘scavenger hunt’ game at the grocery stores is to counter-market HFCS by hunting for it in unlikely products.

    It’s at the top of the list of ingredients in some unlikely foods being positioned as ‘healthy’ and 'natural' (cereals, Nutri-grain bars which are jam-sugar-pastry, etc.) as well as all the overtly predictable junk food items.

    The molecular science of high fructose corn syrup is over the heads of our living lab of 5th graders, but we still touch on the basics just as CSPI did in explaining that it’s a man-made ingredient, etc.

    p.s. If these links to other HFCS articles don’t translate into your blog, I'll post them in full length so you can embed if you wish. I'm still getting the hang of adding links into blog comments as a newbie, which is why I don't more comment often to share info, so apologies!--a.


    Food Facts blog:

    Partial list/Accidental Hedonist:

  2. You should bring some of this information over to BlogHer, where I cross-posted this post. There is a lively conversation about it happening over there:

  3. I think sometimes that if we just learn how to eat grass, we might be healthier.. lol.

    I am a label reader as well, but I know I am probably eating something that is bad for me.. especially everytime I eat pizza or icecream. lol

    Great post Britt, :)

  4. Ain't that the truth?! Just because something says "all natural" certainly doesn't mean it's healthy. Sugar is all natural, MSG is all natural, and as you mentioned, high fructose corn syrup is , well, I guess natural. The human body wants nutrients we were designed to consume, like raw fruits and vegetables in their natural state. I've been eating and consuming all natural products made by a network marketing company for 6 years and have reaped the health benefits. Unfortunately, 95% of Americans will never find these great products because they aren't advertised on TV. I believe you can find much higher quality nutrition on the Internet or from products made by companies who are spreading their nutrition through word of mouth, not through some pro athlete on TV. People need to look past the tube and beyond the local retail stores or whole food chains to find the really good stuff. I have an online health food store that only carries all natural foods not available in stores. It's I encourage you to check it out. the kids next door who eat and drink this stuff are the healthiest kids around, and so am I, going on 45, feeling 25.


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