You’ve probably seen these terms on food labels, in the news, and on restaurant menus. But what do they really mean? And how important is buying organic or natural foods when it comes to healthy eating and meal planning for diabetes? There’s so much nutrition information out there, it’s easy to get confused. Read on for the full story on natural and organic foods.
The term “natural” is used very loosely when it comes to food, most likely because there is not a standard definition for it. Either the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for defining such terms and claims. For example, the FDA has strict definitions that manufacturers must meet in order to claim their products are sugar-free or fat-free.
While a standard definition does not exist, FDA policy does say that the term natural should apply to foods that do not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Cutting back on these substances may have some benefits; however, it doesn’t mean that foods labeled as natural are always low in calories, fat, and carbohydrates. For example, you might find a box of cookies in the store made with all natural ingredients, but that doesn’t automatically make them a healthy choice .
For Jackie Newgent, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, sticking to natural foods means choosing foods that are minimally processed and do not contain added chemicals and artificial ingredients. She also tries to limit nutrient-modified foods like those that have been reduced in fat or contain artificial sweeteners. Interested in trying some of her recipes? This month, we’ve provided some samples from her book:
As you can see, the definition of term “natural” can vary quite a bit and is not strictly regulated by the FDA or USDA the way other claims are. Here are some takeaways to consider when it comes to buying natural foods.
The term organic also tends to cause confusion. The good news: organic claims on food products are regulated by the USDA. Organic foods must be produced without the use of most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering. These foods are also produced using methods that promote the conservation of our natural resources like soil and water.
Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. The animals also must be raised in living conditions that encourage their natural behaviors such as the ability to graze on pastures and are fed 100% organic feed. This makes it less likely that these animals will carry disease or create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Certified organic foods will include the USDA organic seal on the label. You can learn more about the USDA’s National Organic Program on their website.
Many people are under the impression that organic foods are always the healthier option. However, research has generally found that the nutrient value of organic produce and conventionally grown produce is similar. Some packaged organic foods found in the grocery store are still high in calories, saturated fat, and added sugar. So, organic ice cream and organic pretzels are not more nutritious than fresh produce or whole grains just because they wear the organic seal.
You should also consider the cost of buying organic. At times you may find that organic products are the same price as the conventional variety. But often, especially in the produce section of the store, you’ll see that organic items cost significantly more than conventional items. A lot of this extra cost comes from the increased labor needs for organic farming.
Worried about your exposure to pesticides and chemical fertilizers? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit that provides an annual list called the “dirty dozen”. The list names 12 fruits and vegetables found to be highest in pesticide residues based on laboratory tests from the USDA. The dirty dozen currently includes: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, imported nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, and potatoes. Other recent research from the EWG indicates that green beans and leafy greens such as kale and collard greens may also be best bought organic.
by Jackie Newgent, RD
This cookbook features 150 recipes that focus on whole foods and unprocessed ingredients. It skips the artificial sweeteners, fat-free products, and other processed foods, but the recipes are still full of flavor and packed with nutrition.
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