Study exposes these food products labelled as 'natural' are actually unhealthy

An analysis of 331 supermarket foods public health group LiveLighter has revealed that 47 per cent of products marked with the words “nature” or “natural” did not fall into one of the five core food groups, as recommended by the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

This comes as the Starts at 60 reporters exposed a popular butter brand used more canola oil than olive oil in their product but labeled the spread as Olive Spread.

Some of the products highlighted for displaying the words “natural, nature or nature’s” on their packaging were Lollies by The Natural Confectionery Co, chips by the Natural Chip Company, muesli bars made by Nice & Natural and tomato ketchup from Heinz, reports SMH.

“‘Natural’ is used over such a broad range of products, it is not a helpful way of determining the value of a product,” said Alison McAleese, LiveLighter Victoria campaign manager and an accredited practising dietitian.

“Just because something says it’s ‘natural’, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

Ad. Article continues below.

Read more: Popular butter alternative slammed for misleading customers

According to Ms McAleese, the biggest difficulty was that both consumers and manufacturers had a wide range of views on what “natural” means.

“‘Natural’ is not regulated as a word used on packaging. It might mean fewer ingredients in some products; for others it might mean less-processed or made locally … but many of these products are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt,” she said.

LiveLighter found nine out of 10 products that used the word “natural” in the snack-food aisle were considered unhealthy, including muesli bars, snack bars, biscuits, crackers, chips and lollies.

Other products named in the report were Ajita’s Vege Chips, Natvia the 100% Natural Sweetener and Altimate Natural Ice Cream Wafers.

Ad. Article continues below.


A play of words

In the case of Ajita’s Vege Chips, a spokesman said the word “natural” was used to describe Vege Chip products in general, and also as a flavour in its range of products.
“The Vege Chip company does not use any additives like MSG or flavour enhancers derived from MSG.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s food and beverage industry Food Descriptors Guideline says “natural” claims “imply that the product is made up of … ingredients nature has produced, not man-made or interfered with by man”.

The Vege Chip spokesman said it was in this sense that it described its products as being “natural”.

Ad. Article continues below.


Ignore ‘natural’, read the ingredients and nutritional panel

But Ms McAleese said consumers should look only to the ingredients and nutritional panel, and ignore words such as “natural”.

“Using the ‘per 100 grams’ figure on the panel is the best way of comparing products. On the Vege Chips they are saying the serving size is 20 grams, but many consumers would eat more than a serving size,” she said.

“Most consumers would be unaware that there are five servings in a packet.”
Ms McAleese said consumers should also remember that ingredients on packaging are listed in order of amount.

Ad. Article continues below.

“If you see sugar, fat or salt in the first few ingredients, you know it could be unhealthy.”


Advice from the Heart Foundation

Heart Foundation Victoria Healthy Living manager Roni Beauchamp said consumers seeking snacks should stick to the outer aisles of their supermarket.

“You will find an abundance of nutritious foods to snack on, like seasonal fruit, vegetables like celery and carrots, which you can cut up and enjoy.

Ad. Article continues below.

Sam Tew, the co-founder of Natvia the 100% Natural Sweetener, said there needed to be a debate about what the word “natural” really means.

“A lot of people think ‘natural’ means healthy, that’s the good old trick,” he said.

Should food manufacturers be allowed to do this?