100% Natural: What's in a name?

May 12, 2013

When it comes to going to the supermarket, Dr. Marion Nestle wants you to keep one thing in mind:

“The purpose of the entire layout of the supermarket is to sell food products. There’s a sales pitch with every single product, every single layout.”

This week, “Take Care” interviews Nestle, a professor in nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. She is the author of many books on the topic of food labeling, including Food Politics, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary of publication.

Click "Read More" to hear our interview with Dr. Marion Nestle.

Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health; and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley.
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health; and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley.
Credit foodpolitics.com

Nestle says sometimes, the methods food manufacturers use to make this pitch are deceiving, and have resulted in lawsuits that have exposed the problems with some food labeling.

Nestle admits that while food manufacturers are usually good about following the law when it comes to processing and marketing food, sometimes the law itself is vague. She says that when Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations aren’t clear, food manufacturers are sometimes allowed wiggle room.

One problem Nestle has with current FDA regulations is that there is no formal definition of the term “natural,” allowing companies to place it on their food labels even if the product contains artificial elements.

“These things get complicated. I think the FDA should come out with a definition for ‘natural.’ It would solve a lot of problems,” says Nestle.

While changing the law is not an easy thing to do from a consumer standpoint, Nestle says that when it comes to buying food from a supermarket, there a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind in order to combat deceptive food labeling.

“Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients, if it has an ingredient you can’t pronounce, leave it there, and if it has anything artificial, leave it there.”

Nestle also recommends to not buy anything with a health claim on it, as the claim is often misleading, and to not buy anything that uses a cartoon to market itself, as “kids should be eating adult foods, not foods being marketed to them.”

Traditionally, lawsuits have been the most effective course of action for getting changes in food labeling. But, Nestle says, with the rise of social media, those platforms can be a new, easier way of getting a message out.

“If you get the attention of the press, and you get the attention of people who are sending a lot of viral messages around, you can be very effective in generating a lot of attention to your issue.”