Sometimes, reading the packaging of a new health food is more confusing than it is reassuring. Is organic the same thing as natural? Is there such a thing as unnatural food? What is the difference between enriched and fortified food?
Don’t feel bad – in some ways all of these terms are supposed to confuse you; they sound good enough to make you want to buy the foods, even if aren’t exactly sure what you are putting in your body.
In order to clear up the fog a bit, here is a quick reference guide for a few of the most popular “health food” terms for you to have a better idea with regards to the differences between the labels and to decide whether they are the best choice for your diet.
There are slight variations to the definition of Fair Trade depending on the certifying organization. For people living in the US, one of the most common labels is the Fair Trade Certified™ label. Fair Trade USA has the following general definition of a Fair Trade Certified™ product:
Fair Trade Certified™ products were made with respect to people and planet. Our rigorous social, environmental and economic standards work to promote safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses. When you choose products with the Fair Trade label, your day-to-day purchases can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives.
If you want to learn more about Fair Trade Products, check out this video:
As with Fair Trade, the definition and standards that must be met in order for a product to be labelled organic may vary slightly depending on the certifying organization and country. For the USDA organic seal, which is used in the US, the general definition is as follows:
Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
Note that in order for a food to be genuinely Fair Trade and/or organic, it must have the official label visible on the package.
There is no official Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition for Natural foods. For this reason, food companies will often use it freely on their labels, even if it is not clear what they mean by it. The FDA discusses the use of the term “Natural” on food labels as follows:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
The term enriched is used only for processed foods, though many processed foods are not enriched. Through the many processes different foods go through (cooking, combining, griding, exposure to heat and cold, etc.) nutrients are lost. When foods are enriched, the nutrients that were lost in the refinement process are added back in.
The Medical Dictionary defined enriched foods as follows:
A processed food that has lost nutrients during milling, grinding, pasteurization, or other processes and then had those nutrients added back to the marketed product. Two examples of vitamins commonly used in food enrichment are vitamins B1 and B2, thiamine and riboflavin, respectively.
Unlike enriched foods, fortified foods do not contain simply the nutrients that were lost during the refinement process. Fortified foods have added nutrients beyond their natural levels in order to provide an added benefit. Often, fortified foods cater to a specific audience with different nutritional needs that are difficult to meet with a “normal” diet, like pregnant women and body builders.
However, plenty of fortified foods are available to the general public as foods of mass consumption. One example of this are breakfast cereals; most breakfast cereals are fortified with 100% daily value of multiple nutrients.
When you are armed with the correct knowledge, it is easier to make better nutritional choices – even with processed foods. Making informed choices may not only mean a healthier you, but also a healthier community and planet.