Have you been buying more “natural” foods lately? Because the word “natural” has become synonymous with safety, health, and wholesomeness, marketers have been labeling more foods as “natural” to imply the superiority of their products over more “artificial” foods. But does “natural” equal better?

What is a natural food?

The term “natural” can be pretty confusing because the federal government does not regulate most foods that are labeled as “natural.” So, can anyone define what “natural” means on a food label?

As long as the food “does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” the Food and Drug Association (FDA) does not object to the use of the word “natural” on the label. Although people may believe that foods labeled as “natural” contain no preservatives or additives, in fact, manufacturers may add substances naturally derived from foods to preserve or enhance flavor.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does define “natural” for meat and poultry products. On a meat label, the words “naturally raised” mean that the animal has not been exposed to growth promoters, most antibiotics, or animal byproducts.  “Naturally raised” meat also can’t contain any artificial ingredients or be more than minimally processed.

Many people also assume that the word “natural” means “organic.” Although organic foods are natural, not all natural ingredients are organic. Many natural ingredients that are extracted with chemical processes (such as vitamin c) are not allowed in purely organic foods. The USDA strictly regulates organic foods, which must be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, irradiation, genetic engineering, or growth hormones.

Whole foods are also sometimes labeled as “natural” foods. A whole food hasn’t been processed. In nature, fruits and vegetables are perfect whole foods because they contain only one ingredient—themselves. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have nutrients and fiber that your body needs and can utilize. If you want to know which nutrients you need to stay healthy and perform optimally, an InsideTracker Plan uses blood analysis to recommend foods that are the best for your body.

What is an artificial food?

The term “artificial” generally refers to ingredients or foods created to imitate nature, such as certain colorings or flavors. For example, food scientists developed artificial raspberry flavor to mimic the taste of real raspberries. Sometimes, artificial ingredients are added to a food to provide a nutrient, such as calcium added to orange juice. In terms of nutrition labeling, however, “artificial” means anything added to a processed food that is not taken directly from a whole food. The nutrition label lists all artificial compounds in a processed food. In general, if the ingredient sounds like it came from a laboratory, it probably did.

Food manufacturers use both natural and artificial ingredients to add to or to preserve the flavor, color, and texture of foods. Both natural and artificial compounds fortify processed foods with extra vitamins or minerals. For instance, the lecithin in corn and soybeans helps provide product consistency, while beet powder from beets can be used as food coloring. However, some ingredients that are found in nature can also be manufactured artificially and produced more economically than their natural counterparts. For example, vitamin C can either be found in an orange or can be produced in a laboratory.

Can artificial foods be healthy?

Nutritionists recommend eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to get required vitamins and minerals, but what about food that aren’t found in nature, such as milk fortified with vitamin D? You can now purchase pasta enriched with calcium and find brands of soda that contain vitamins, but are these modified foods healthier? Some nutritionists say that consuming these enhanced foods provide similar benefits as taking a supplement, and in some cases, may even be more efficient than a multivitamin. Since many nutrients are fat-soluble, they are digested better when they are taken with food. Vitamin A is fat-soluble, which is why many brands of margarine include the nutrient. Added nutrients can also combine favorably with the components that are naturally found in certain foods. For instance, the vitamin D that is frequently added to milk aids calcium absorption.

Despite fortification these foods aren’t always as impressive as their labels claim, especially when compared to whole foods. Processing destroys certain nutrients, and the more processed an item is, the more nutrients are destroyed. Sometimes manufacturers add back vitamins that were lost in processing, so a processed fortified food is generally healthier than a processed unfortified one. Fiber is the major component that is often missing in processed foods. This nutrient helps your body to slow the absorption of sugar into the blood, works to improve your digestion, and makes you feel fuller for longer.

Additionally, artificial products may actually contain too much of a vitamin or mineral! You may be overdosing on certain nutrients, especially if you routinely eating the same foods. And more is not better! For example, consuming too much vitamin A can cause headaches and reduced bone strength. Check food labels to make sure that you are not consuming too much of a certain nutrient!

Many artificial foods, from artificial colors to trans fat, have had their health effects questioned. A scare over a processed food may linger long after research has proved them safe. It can take many years to research the safety of processed food, and sometimes the case is never truly closed.

Variety and moderation are important parts of any diet, and while some artificial foods can be part of a healthy eating plan, make whole fruits and vegetables a priority when choosing what to eat! InsideTracker can take the guesswork out of choosing a healthy diet, so if you’re wondering which foods will best satisfy your unique nutrition needs, sign up for a plan today!