What is ‘natural’ food anyway?

Rather than make people feel guilty for consuming processed foods, we should look at the ingredients on the back, and not the word ‘natural’ on the front

Anthrax, asbestos, arsenic, mercury, cyanide, formaldehyde: what are the two things they all have in common? Yes, they’re all indeed very dangerous, if not lethal, for us, but they’re also natural products. And there are many more. Anyone for hemlock?

So, how is it so many educated adults assume that "natural" automatically equates to all things good for you? The fact that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Codex Alimentarius – the organisation's universal compendium of recognised standards, codes of practice and food guidelines – does not recognise the term "natural", hasn't stopped it being splashed across food products.

But what is a “natural” food anyway? It’s generally taken to be free of any food additives or artificial ingredients (eg sweeteners, flavourings, antibiotics, food colours, etc), but some take it to mean those foods which are either unprocessed or minimally processed. But define “process”?

"A processed food is simply a food that has gone through a process, or change, from its normal, natural state," says dietician Sarah Keogh of Eatwell clinic in Dublin 2. "A packet of chopped carrots, for example, has been processed simply because they have been chopped. Like anything, there are some very good and not so good processed foods. Whether we like it or not, processed foods are a part of modern life."


Keogh says rather than make people feel wrong or guilty for consuming processed foods, we should be talking about the ingredients to look out for on the back, and don’t be swayed by the word “natural” on the front. And subscribing to the “but it’s natural” school of crash slimming can be equally confounding, with the likes of the lemon juice, grape juice or cucumber diet all vying for our wallet.

“The human body needs a really wide range of nutrition and nutrients, ideally every day,” says Keogh. “If you’re following such diets for weeks on end, you’re going to miss out on certain nutrients, which will impact the body. But we know that the more crash diets you have, the heavier you will ultimately get: although you will lose weight, the rebound weight is greater. Also, you’re more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes if you’re bouncing your weight up and down, rather than stay at a steady weight.

“I’ve had people only eating fruit and vegetables who come into me because their hair is falling out, and you try to explain to them that although fruit and vegetables are incredible important, on their own they do not represent a balanced diet. You know, there’s a reason we have a food pyramid.”

Keogh says aside from the likes of coeliac disease or Type 2 diabetes, which can be managed extremely well by a diet set out by a qualified and experienced dietician, nutrition should never be used as the sole or principle means in overcoming chronic illness.

High-fiber diet

“The most important areas where diet can make a real difference in societies such as ours, is in the prevention and treatment of diverticulitis. A high-fibre diet is definitely very helpful in preventing that, and important in managing it once it has established itself,” says Newbridge-based GP Dr Brendan O’Shea, who is also director of the post-graduate resource centre at the Irish College of General Practioners.

“Otherwise in our society, it’s rare that a particular diet is going to make a huge impact on the range of illnesses we see and treat in large numbers, such as cardio-vascular diseases and cancer. But most of us should be eating more fibre than we do, and, in most instances, consuming fewer calories.”

Not to be underplayed in the #butitsnatural reasoning is the role of highly refined advertising methods of the food and agri-food sector.

“I do think the commercial food industry is very adroit in its marketing, and the bigger the company the more sophisticated the marketing techniques. I think it would be helpful if people were more energetic, rigorous and perceptive about what the marketers are trying to achieve,” says O’Shea, who adds that raising the advertising standards bar for food products, in the face of ever growing and troubling obesity statistics, would help take “steps against untrammelled commercialism at the expense of the health of the citizens”.

Atypical experiences

Googling conditions is not a good idea, O’Shea says, as very often the traffic driven to such sites is being generated by a minority of people who have had atypical experiences, thereby not providing reliable information or effective reassurance. That said, some accredited health websites can be very reliable resource for all, says O’Shea, such as patient.co.uk or safefood.eu.

But the GP is quick to point out the impact people’s complexities have in this debate. “When you get people coming from the more affluent end of the social spectrum, they are arguably more susceptible to the suggestion that they’re bloated or tired or feeling dreadful, or their immune system is down. These are seductive messages that we constantly see, such as images of women at bus stops rubbing their tummy, with a yoghurt being waved in the background.

“Most people who have background concerns or worries immediately begin to feel better as soon as they begin taking action, almost irrespective of whether the actions are of proven scientific efficacy or not. So, people and their complexities play a huge role in this,” says O’Shea.

“Certainly, in practice, we see certain people consistently coming in who believe themselves to have medical conditions for which there is no real evidence. It doesn’t happen an awful lot but I do think it probably happens more if your general practice is located in an affluent area, and it happens an awful lot less if you’re in a deprived area.”

One case in point, O’Shea is keen to raise, is the number of people who are convinced they have coeliac disease, when there’s no clinical evidence for it. But, overall, he sees the pursuit of natural remedies and treatments by patients as not something most GPs, himself included, are highly concerned about.