Let me start with a story. “It’s Sunday, the day for my weekly trip to the grocery store. I have my list of the items I need. I am feeling confident that I can quickly grab these items and head out the door. Then disaster strikes. I am standing in front of the lunch kit’s ready to grab my lunch kit of choice, when I notice new options. I’m suddenly hit with guilt that the claims on this new lunch kit bring me. This option is made with 100% natural ingredients, and it’s the natural choice. My head starts to swirl, and I don’t know what to do. So, I grab the more expensive item with the natural claims and run to the register.” Has this ever happened to you? Let’s take a closer look and see if these marketing claims lead us to buy the healthier food.
First, lets talk about the term Natural. Foods labeled with the natural claim are described by the USDA as a good that is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added color. This label does not explain anything about pesticide use or nutritional value. If the label states that the food is natural it should also contain a statement explaining how. Such as there are no artificial ingredients. As we look closer at this particular label I can see in really tiny print that this label excludes half of the ingredients.
Well now I am confused. If I can’t trust the claims on the front of the box what can I trust. Have no fear. The FDA approves the food label that you can find on any packaged food. Let’s review the food label to determine if the food has nutritional value. All food labels have the Daily Value marked on them. The Dailey value is based on 2,000 calorie diet. A daily value of 5% is considered low, 10% is medium and 20% is high. Think about those numbers as you consider the nutrients in the food.
At the top you can find the total number of calories. Determining your calorie needs can help you decide if the total calories per serving size is appropriate for your lifestyle. In this instance the natural food had more total calories per kit.
Next on the label is Fat. Strive to eat foods with a lower daily value of fat. Foods that have high levels of Saturated and Trans fat should be limited. Look for foods higher in Mono and Poly unsaturated fatty acids. These are your healthy fats but are not required to be listed on the label. Back to the food kit in my original story. The natural item had more total and saturated fat.
As we move down the label we come to Carbohydrates. Total Carbohydrates includes fiber, the higher the fiber the better. While making sure the sugar or added sugar is low. Again, this natural product contained more sugar, while the item not containing the natural claim had more fiber.
Last on this label is Protein. People should strive to consume 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. The item containing the natural label had less protein than the competitor.
The last place to look to determine if something might be healthier, and where you might have a better idea of this natural claim, is the ingredients list. In this situation both contained very similar ingredients including preservatives and additives.
Even though, I probably am not finding my healthiest lunch item in the lunch kit aisle, it is important for me not to get distracted and spend more money based on fancy packaging and buzz words. The first thing I always do, when I want to understand a food better is to flip the item to the back, and read the food label. This gives you a much more accurate picture of what is in the food item and its nutritional value.

Monica Nagele is the County Extension Director and educator of health and human science for the Montgomery County Purdue Extension.