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NATURAL-ly Deceiving Food Labels

EF Blog

NATURAL-ly Deceiving Food Labels

Amy Ward

What do you really understand about the catchy food labels that scream "I'm healthy!" 

I grew up with "natural" peanut butter as a staple in my family's kitchen; mostly Adam's and Smucker's. As I grew up and moved out, this didn't change. EF Blog readers know that my husband and I like to exercise moderation in our eating and drinking habits, but Jif and Skippy have always been 4-letter words in our house. Needless to say, I was surprised to see that my husband recently purchased a jar of Natural Jif. When I asked him about his purchase, he said that our new grocery store didn't carry any Smucker's (standard fare at most grocery franchises). No big deal. One jar in a lifetime of peanut butter will not be the death of us.

Before I continue, I should say I am confident that what you are about to read is nothing new, crazy, or earth-shattering. After all, the peanut butter thing has been beat into the ground by most health nuts (pardon the pun). But that doesn't change the importance of the issue. Let's be reminded to think about the seemingly insignificant factors that drive our food purchases. At the very least we should think about them every once in awhile.

I last read the Natural Jif product label years ago, when it first entered the market. Considering I now had this product in my pantry, I decided to take another look. Let's start with the front of the jar. After all, an attractive label does most of the selling.

As with most products attempting to convey a "healthy feel", Jif switched it's color palette to something more earth-toned. Rather than a bold primary color for the label's background (can we say kindergarteners?), they reduced the red, blue, green footprint and went with a neutral tan print meant to imitate the look of burlap. I mean, you can't get much more granola than burlap!

The brand logo is topped by the word "natural" in capital letters. The font looks as though an artisan in the backwoods of Tennessee carved it years ago.  Ooooh - this peanut butter must be handcrafted, too! There's also an image of a few peanuts; in the shell, shelled, and with a few colorful green leaves. This image is surrounded by something resembling a seal, reading, "Fresh roasted peanut taste." Are they actually fresh roasted, or do they just taste like it?

This last part is perhaps the most telling signal that what you're holding in your hand may not be an appropriate item for purchase. At the very bottom of the label, just beneath the logo, and in smaller, finer print, it reads, "Peanut Butter Spread; contains 90% peanuts". This isn't a nut butter, it's a spread. And if this spread contains 90% peanuts, what's the other 10%? Admittedly, even traditional natural nut butters may contain salt, which of course would drop the amount of peanuts below 100%. But 10% seems like a lot. The ingredients listed on the back read as follows: peanuts, sugar, palm oil, contains 2% or less of: salt, molasses. Remember that ingredients are listed in order of most prevalent to least (by weight).

Nut butter spreads such as Jif have a big selling point: No stirring! If you've ever purchased a true "natural" nut butter (just nuts or nuts + salt), you have likely labored with the annoying layers of oil and rock-hard butter that must be mixed thoroughly before you can really enjoy. And if you refrigerate the product as you should, making a simple snack can turn into a nightmare of squished bagels and torn toast. 

So how do companies make nut butters so spreadable? Remember that mystery 10%? In traditional nut butter spreads, hydrogenated oils are added as emulsifiers. An emulsifier is a "binder" of sort that, in this case, discourages the separation of ground peanuts and their naturally occurring peanut oil. Hydrogenated oils are manufactured by taking a healthy-ish oil, heating said oil to a very hot temperature, and introducing a catalyst. The resultant product is no longer liquid at room temperature and solid when cooled, but semi-solid at all times. So what do they add to the Natural Jif? Palm oil. Because of its high saturated fat content (comparable to butter), palm oil is one of the few oils that can be found in a semi-solid state at room temperature. So, to translate, you are adding more fat (oil) to your fat (nuts) to make it spreadable.

Sugar is added to make the spread taste more appealing, not to mention increase your appetite for the product. But to be honest, I'm not quite sure why molasses is added on top of the sugar. I can only assume that it is added for color and perhaps the  high viscosity contributes to the easy of spreadability and a minor amount of emulsification. 

All this natural talk really got me thinking about what controls, if any, are in place with the term "natural". Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating another FDA guideline. I feel like an organization that regulates everything from ophthalmic devices to ionizing radiation emitting equipment to lipstick to dog food has already bitten off more than it can chew. But I would put money down that with all of the other regulated information on food packaging, most Americans would assume that "natural" meant something, too. Here's what the FDA has this to say regarding use of the term "natural":

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

In short, if it's not artificial, it's therefore natural...?... And what about the term "natural flavor"? My extended search on revealed a real page-turner: Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21, Volume 2, Subpart B

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in 182.10, 182.20, 182.40, and 182.50 and part 184 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.

Nothing like a legal document to really get the juices flowing, right? This definition reminds me of the Mr. Sketch commercial where the blueberry breaks wind and the fragrance is sucked into a marker. Despite the FDA's wordy explanation, it makes sense. If "A" was once a part of "B", "A" is a natural flavor. What I am not so excited about is when "A" is extracted from some animal gland or organ. How do we know the source of a natural flavor when the label simply says "natural flavor"? I guess it's a little different when you're extracting oil from a simple organism like an herb as opposed to extracting protein from any one of hundreds of parts from, say, a woodland creature.

Always question those ingredients, but don't drive yourself nuts. 

As I mentioned before, I'm sure today's post didn't shine any new light on the "natural" subject or all the hoops companies go through to make their products more appealing. But I do hope that it reminds you to be a bit more skeptical about nutritional and product labeling. And you can rest assured your knowledge will help steer you in the right direction next time you're at the grocery store. Shop smart!