Friday, February 4, 2011

What Does "Natural" Mean?

The other day, I ran out to a local grocery store - not my normal store - for some peanut butter.  Few things fluster me more than shopping in unfamiliar stores.  First, it's a project just to find the right aisle.  Then, if you want to be any kind of conscientious consumer, you need to pick up and read all the labels to really see what it is you're buying.  I rarely have to read labels at my regular stores, because I've already read them.  I know what brands I like, and I can pop them in my cart, and be in and out in no time.

But I wasn't at my regular store.  I was at a store down the street from my house, and I was staring at the selection of peanut butter.  I knew I could just ignore the regular Jif and Skippy, but I was intrigued to see how many brands had cropped up that had the word "Natural" all over their packaging.   I picked one up:  Peanuts, sugar, salt, safflower oil.   Next one:  Peanuts, sugar, salt, safflower oil.  I looked at about four before I resigned myself to the fact that I would be buying the most expensive one there:  the only one that had an acceptable ingredient list:  Organic Peanuts.

The "natural" brands did not contain hydrogenated oils, nor did they contain things like mono and diglycerides.  So they were, if you want to be technical about it, more natural than their counterparts.  But were they healthy?  Of course not.  You don't need to add sugar to make peanut butter.  You don't need to add oil either... peanuts have plenty of their own oil.   And therein lies my problem with the "natural" labels.  Well-meaning people buy them thinking that natural = healthy. When in fact in a lot of cases natural doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot of anything, other than the fact that they feel they can charge more.  There is no standardization for the natural label, which means that anyone can use it any time they deem it appropriate.

Rather than looking at the front of the package, and getting seduced with words like "natural", do the work, know your ingredients, and read them.