Watch those labels: 'Natural' may not mean what you think

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Sari Marissa Gower with daughters Madison, 7, and Dylan, 4. "If there are ingredients I can't pronounce there, I don't buy it," she says.

It's hard to fool Sari Marissa Gower when it comes to product labels, but food manufacturers still keep trying. While the South Philadelphia mother of two finds herself drawn to products labeled "natural," she knows there's always more to the story.

"'Natural' is a tricky thing. I always dig further," Gower said. "What's on the back matters more than what's on the front. If there are ingredients I can't pronounce there, I don't buy it."

A recent survey of 1,000 adult shoppers by Consumer Reports found that 73 percent tried to buy food labeled as "natural." But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no rules when it comes to using the word, meaning that the buyer must beware.

"It's a marketing strategy," said Robin Danowski, a licensed dietitian-nutritionist who teaches the subject at Drexel University. "Just because the word 'natural' is on a label doesn't mean a food is healthy."

In late 2015, the FDA began seeking public input on what the word "natural" should mean when it appears on a food package. The comment period ended in May, but the FDA has made it clear that any proposed rules governing use of the word are years away. In fact, the organization may decide to not change the current policy.

That means consumers who want to eat more naturally need to shop carefully, moving beyond the explosive claims on the front of a package - Heart healthy! Gluten-free! High fiber! - and turn to the back.

Danowski said one good rule is to look for products that have three ingredients or fewer. When two items seem similar but one has the magic word "natural" and the other does not, she advises choosing the item with less sugars, sodium, and fat.

"You're not going to find the perfect food," she said. "It's not always practical to eat everything in its whole form. Society is in a hurry and seeking convenience, but when you choose processed foods, don't just look at the front of the box as a guide. Compare the labels."

And realize that even the most natural of products aren't necessarily healthy. A few years ago, a photo of a chalkboard sign apparently outside a restaurant went viral. It read, "Lead, uranium and cocaine are also gluten-free. Watch out for health buzzwords." The same could be said for "natural."

The FDA has talked about creating standards to define "natural" since the 1990s. In 1993, it released nonbinding guidelines stating that products labeled "natural" should include "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source)" and should not have anything "not normally expected to be in the food."

"That doesn't mean a product doesn't have extra sodium or fat," Danowski said. "There are plenty of potato chips out there that are natural, but I wouldn't recommend them as part of a healthy diet."

Indeed, Lay's offers chips labeled natural, as does Utz and Herr's. Snack giant Frito Lay uses the word "simply" to imply the wholesomeness of such products as "Simply Cheetos."

Another concern: Some consumers confuse "natural" with "organic."

"Organic is regulated. Natural . . . is not," said Alice Lichtenstein, chair of the American Society for Nutrition's Public Policy Committee and a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. "I recently bought skinless, boneless chicken breasts, and it said 'all natural.' I looked at it and shrugged. How could it not be natural? It was a waste of ink."

While Lichtenstein said it makes sense to have a clear definition of "natural" if manufacturers want to use it, she also believes labels are already too busy with health claims.

"Do we really even need this information? Will it make the consumer more knowledgable or confuse them more or encourage them to make decisions based on assumptions that aren't accurate?" Lichtenstein said. "I suspect the average consumer may not understand the nuances and, instead, it will be more confusing."

Gower is vegan, her three children are vegetarian, and her husband is a meat eater. Sometimes, she said, she prepares three different dinners. That means she reads a lot of labels while grocery shopping. She writes about her food finds on her blog - fabphillymom.com - and shares healthy food photos on Instagram under the name "Turquoise Table."

"It takes more time when you're food shopping," Gower said, "but I'm careful."