Q+A: Are ‘Natural’ Ingredients Healthier? Behind the Campbell’s Soup Change

Chicken soupBy dropping some synthetic ingredients in its signature chicken soup, Campbell’s has become the latest food company to strive for a more “natural” product.

The soup-maker follows in the footsteps of companies like Kraft — which dropped the artificial yellow-orange coloring for its macaroni and cheese — and General Mills — which also resolved to do away with artificial coloring in its cereals.

But just because companies are dropping artificial ingredients in favor of natural ones, their products may not actually be getting healthier.

Robin Danowski, a registered dietitian in Drexel’s Center for Integrated Nutrition and Performance and a clinical instructor of nutrition in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, shared her thoughts on the trend of companies moving toward more natural recipes and what it actually means for consumers’ diets.

When did the push for more natural ingredients in food begin taking off?

I know the term “natural” has been around for a while because I’ve been practicing dietetics for 15 years and I became more familiar with the term in my internship. But I’d say it’s been getting more attention with consumers in the last year or so.

The term is, unfortunately, very loosely defined. The FDA [Food and Drug Administration] hasn’t really defined it like it has “organic.” Basically, they don’t object to calling something “natural” if there are no artificial flavors or colorings in it.

However, “all natural” products can still contain antibiotics, GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] and added sugars or sodium. So the FDA continues to allow the product to be labeled as “natural” despite these additives.

There’s an all-natural Cheetos that still has a significant amount of sodium and fat. Is it still a healthier food to eat just because it’s natural? No.

So using the term “natural” is probably a business hook?

It’s all about marketing. The consumers want to eat what’s healthy and the problem is that can be difficult or expensive for companies to do.

I think they’re trying to emphasize a more whole or homemade product, but that is really difficult when they’re processing it and want it to sit on a shelf for a long time.

Is there another trend on the horizon that could prompt another shift in the industry like this?

I gave it some thought and asked a few of my clients and colleagues, and although there are a lot of new weight-loss diet trends, the push might be more toward eating local and sustainable food.

Consumers are starting to become more conscious of how the food they consume affects the environment and how animals are treated in the process. Consumers will be looking for more transparency.

Another trend gaining speed is food delivered to the home, like these meal-in-a-box services. You’re still making the food fresh and the ingredients are provided for you, especially if they’re coming from a local farm.

But there are a lot of challenges to sustaining a local farm, including the area where people live — they could have cold conditions or minimal rain — and whether the area can support farms economically.

Really, it’s not sexy to talk about increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables while cutting back on processed foods, but that’s what we always come back to. That’s what makes a healthier diet.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Danowski should contact Frank Otto at fmo26@drexel.edu or 215.571.4244.

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