‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean better or safer

Consumer Reports News: April 23, 2008 10:31 AM

All kinds of products are labeled natural these days, from chicken and soda to cosmetics and oven cleaners. But sometimes that natural claim can be misleading. For one thing, not all natural ingredients are the breath of fresh air you're looking for. Take carminic acid, a red dye extracted from pregnant scale insects; citric acid, made from fungus fermentation; and gelatin, made from the bones of livestock. And not all natural ingredients are benign.

Some herbal ingredients like d-limonene from citrus oils and sodium lauryl sulfate, derived from coconuts, can irritate to your lungs and skin. Even worse, there are no rules covering personal-care products, processed foods, or cleaners that use the natural label. So companies are free to slap on the label without any guidelines. The natural label on fresh food is also questionable; government regulations cover only meat and poultry. The Department of Agriculture can hold a company accountable, but no government or other agency verifies that food and other products are made from natural ingredients.

What you can do
Next time you see a natural label, check out the ingredient list. In processed foods like natural soda, for example, you might find high-fructose corn syrup, a chemically made sugar. Look instead for sodas that use cane sugar. You may also find heart-unhealthy partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats, which can be chemically made from oil) in natural snack foods and bread. Look for healthful, natural oils like olive oil and safflower oil in the ingredients list.

Cleaners are tougher to check because the government doesn’t require all ingredients to be listed on labels. The same goes for fragrances and flavorings; their ingredients are considered trade secrets. But you should find some ingredients listed on shampoos, lotions, and nail-care items. Tip-offs that the product isn’t natural include formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, and FD&C dyes or colors.

Finally, never confuse natural with organic. You'll often find natural products lumped together with organics in the store, but they aren’t the same thing. The organic label is the real deal most of the time. It’s backed by government standards, and inspectors verify that manufacturers are living up to them. So if you really want to go natural, shop for products with a legitimate organic label and ignore the rest.

Find out what the labels on your food, personal care product or household cleaner really mean at www.eco-labels.org.

Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of GreenerChoices.org, our Web site on products for a better planet

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