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What is Natural?

March 2, 2014

The natural food movement is gathering momentum now.  It’s unstoppable, at least until something else comes along to replace it.  In some respects, natural food is the latest fashion.  It’s more than that, though.  Natural food is also the perfect marketing term.  Everybody thinks they know what it means, but it’s general enough that the manufacturers can call almost every food natural or natural-source.  We can get some guidance from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s web page.  They define a natural food as one that has not undergone significant addition, removal, or alteration during its processing.  They also apply this definition to natural ingredients, even though the completed food product can’t be called natural.

In order to eat natural foods, you need to make changes to your diet.  Unfortunately, the term diet has two different meanings, often conflicting.  Most people associate a diet with weight loss.  That’s certainly what motivates people.  That sort of a diet may not be healthy, but some people want quick results regardless of the consequences.  Some diets that promise weight loss are even scams.  A gradual weight loss by regulation of intake and activity is better.  Here’s a recent web page that describes many trendy diets and explains why they fail.  The other meaning of the word diet is simply what you eat regularly.  Healthy eating is what most people want.  It’s clearly better, and can even help prevent many diseases.

You might wonder if natural food means healthy food.  It’s certainly not a direct relationship or even a reliable rule to follow.  There are too many exceptions to the rule.  The fact that natural is such a general term makes the relationship even more difficult.  It’s mostly a marketing term right now.  Still, it’s already having some effects.  Butter sales are climbing while margarine sales are declining, presumably because people see butter as more natural than margarine.  That change is not necessarily beneficial, but here’s one that clearly is.  There’s been a recent drop in childhood obesity, outlined here.  The cause seems to have been the result of reduced sugar in the child’s diet, along with a rise in breastfeeding.

With all this confusion and uncertainty surrounding natural foods, scientific evidence is essential.  If you follow a diet or ascribe health effects to foods without scientific evidence, you are making a mistake.  Almost all of these foods or diets turn out to have no benefit.  Of course, it does take time for this evidence to be established.  Newly discovered foods or diets may be so recent that medical science has not had time to evaluate them.  At least, watch out for magical effects.

Here are a few recent scientific studies that reveal the health effects of what you eat or drink:

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