Volcanic eruptions. Floods. Poison ivy. All are considered “natural,” but none, upon mention, are likely to elicit a positive reaction. So why are some consumers assuming that food products with ambiguous “natural” labels are necessarily healthier, safer or more environmentally-friendly?

Recently, Dean Foods, the nation’s largest organic dairy producer, announced that it will market a line of “natural” milk and yogurt (http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/chi-natural-foods-10-jul10,0,834771.story), which set off a debate about what is a “natural” food product. In fact, there is no regulatory definition for “natural” food – with the exception of meat (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling _Terms/index.asp) – so the label is really just a soothing suggestion that meddlesome men haven’t messed with Mother Nature. However, it’s no guarantee of safety or nutrition.

As a case in point, the U.S. natural food market grew by 10 percent to $12.9 billion from 2007 to 2008 according to the Nutrition Business Journal, and still the national obesity rate climbs at an alarming rate (http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html). Not even increased organic food consumption is necessarily making us healthier. That’s because there is no conclusive evidence showing that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food, according to the Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/ health/organic-food/NU00255). Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. So while there are many reasons people buy organic food, they shouldn’t be doing it just to lose weight.

Let’s go beyond the labels, back to the basics. The truth is that there’s no substitute for a balanced diet and exercise. Research shows that Americans consume 150 to 300 more calories per day than they did 30 years ago according to registered dietician Sally Barclay. About one-half of these extra calories come from sweetened caloric beverages such as soda, sports drinks and juice drinks. An extra 100 calories per day could cause you to gain 10 pounds in a year. There’s your health problem!

You’ve heard it before. We’re each responsible for our own health. We need to eat less overall and start eating more of the right kinds of food. If you need help with that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a great nutrition resource, http://www.mypyramid.gov/. The website includes everything from tips for planning healthy meals to a personally-tailored nutrition plan that accounts for an individual’s age, gender, weight, height, and physical activity. The site also reviews tips for effective physical activity to improve your health.

I’ve used the website myself, and it turns out that the “natural” hops in my brew won’t guarantee me a “beach body.” I guess I’ll have to look beyond the label for the answers to my nutrition and safety questions.

Written by Zach Bader
Zach is a Communications Specialist for Iowa Farm Bureau.