How Do You Know If You’re Eating Natural Foods?

Written by D'Anne Hotchkiss

June 26, 2024

How Do You Know If You’re Eating Natural Foods?

You’d think it would be easy to know if you’re eating natural foods.

It should be, right?

Unfortunately, what it means can be different for everyone. Because it’s a vague and unregulated term, it can be used to mean many different things.

If your current diet is filled with highly processed foods and you want to make a change, you can start by making one small change at a time and focus on what’s doable for you. A realistic aim is for the vast majority of your diet to consist of foods that are minimally processed and filled with nutrients that make them better for you.

Of course, it’s easy to recognize some foods as natural – the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds you find in the produce section, for instance. These are foods that are:

  • Free from synthetic and artificial ingredients or additives
  • Minimally processed
  • Full of the nutrients that were present at the time the food was grown and harvested.

 

What About Processed Foods?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Processed food includes any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way.

The word processed can mean as little as the food was washed after harvest to remove soil, or air containments such as pollen, or even, bug droppings. So, if you pick an apple from the tree you’ve grown organically in your backyard and wash it yourself before biting into it, it’s been processed. If you slice or chop that apple, it can be considered minimally processed.

I share that just so you don’t get misled by what it means when reading claims that all processed foods are bad for you. Generally, minimally processed means just what you’d think it means.

Unless you’re going to eat only what you grow and only in as close to their fresh-from-the-garden state as possible, you’re going to eat processed foods.

Further, some of them will have preservatives. That’s not bad either. Some foods really need preservatives. I’ll get to that shortly.

 

Processed Foods are Okay

Processed foods are not necessarily bad for you. There’s a broad range of processed foods that purists would say are not natural, but most of us would recognize as having strong nutritional value. That’s because food processing includes simple steps such as canning, freezing, baking, or drying. Would you consider canned beans, frozen corn, or dried fruit such as raisins bad for you? Of course not! 

Here are other processed foods that many of us consider natural but are not:

  • All milks—dairy milk from cows, goats, sheep or other animals, and those derived from plants or nuts
  • Butter and cheeses, including cottage cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Soy products such as tofu and tempeh
  • Oils, whether pressed from olives, avocados, fish, grains, legumes, seeds, or nuts
  • Vinegar

 

Added Nutrients Can be Good for You Too

Sometimes nutrients are lost in processing and are later replaced by the manufacturer. The vitamin C in orange juice, for example, is added. That’s because heat-pasteurizing the juice to remove bacteria that can cause infections (like from those bug droppings) also kills naturally occurring heat-sensitive vitamin C.

Your body can’t tell the difference between the vitamin C that was formed in the fruit and the vitamin C that was used to replace it. So, in my opinion, orange juice can still be considered all-natural. Here’s a fun fact: processed orange juice with added vitamin C may contain much more vitamin C than the oranges themselves. Even so, two better-for-you options are prefer cold-pressed or fresh-squeezed orange juice. Eating an orange is an even better option, since you’re likely to get more fiber than you will by drinking juice. Fiber helps you feel fuller while eating less.

 

Read the Fine Label!

What about preservatives? They’re not necessarily bad either. Pickles are cucumbers preserved in vinegar, salt, and sometimes, sugar. Pickling is a popular way of preserving fresh, in-season produce for eating year-round. Obviously, natural products used to preserve foods, like vinegar, sugar, and salt, are simply part of what we enjoy about eating those preserved foods. Other times, preservatives are necessary to keep food safe during transit and while sitting on the grocery shelf and in your pantry. They protect us from mold, yeast, and botulism.

What you want to do is to avoid artificial preservatives—typically words (or acronyms) you see on labels that you would never use in a normal conversation. When reading ingredient labels, look for artificial preservatives you can’t pronounce. While they are regulated by the FDA, if you’re intent on eating natural and better-for-you foods, leave those foods on the shelf.

When it comes to packaged foods, how do you know if you’re eating natural foods? Use your eyes. Read that label on the back of the package to ensure that your foods contain ingredients you want to consume.

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

— Les Emmerson, The 5 Man Electrical Band

Finally, taste the food. That’s a big indicator whether a food is natural or not. Minimally processed foods let the full flavor of the food shine through. Highly processed foods such as those that are thickly coated or snack foods filled with artificial ingredients obscure the food. For instance, when you taste our pecans, you can immediately taste the pecans along with the seasonings.  

 

What if I Make it Myself?

I love a good scratch-made dessert. Does making it yourself mean it’s natural? Well, it might contain only natural ingredients such as sugar, chocolate, and eggs, as in Flourless Chocolate Cake. But it’s not a natural food.

Or, using eggs from free-range chickens, pure cane sugar, expensive all-natural, sustainably sourced, fair-trade Madagascar vanilla, and cream from pasture-raised cows, as in Crème Brule? Nope, still not natural.

And they are most definitely processed. But so are the steamed fresh green beans you eat with your poached wild-caught never-frozen salmon. But we all know those desserts are not good for us, even though they certainly taste good. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them ever. Just be mindful.

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.”

 —Voltaire

7 Ways Know If You’re Eating Natural Foods

It’s not only okay to eat foods that are not all-natural, it’s a practical necessity. Try making small changes to your diet like eating more minimally processed foods and fewer highly processed foods like breakfast cereals, crackers, cookies, chips, granola, and most snack bars.

Similarly, try to buy foods that are in season. When possible, buy food from your local farmers market so you’re not only eating the freshest foods, you’re supporting your local economy.

Here’s five more ways to know if you’re eating natural foods:

  1. Limit your consumption of foods that contain large amounts of added sugar or sodium.
  2. Refined grains lack fiber and other valuable nutrients. Plus, they can contribute to inflammation associated with weight gain. Therefore, it’s best to choose minimally processed grains.
  3. Boost the nutritional value of your meals by replacing those refined grains such as pasta and rice with vegetables.
  4. Choose nutrient-dense whole foods like nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  5. Margarine and some oils are highly processed and linked to an increased risk of disease. Choose minimally processed oils and fats.

“Fat is also a nutrient, required by the body. Notably, when the essentiality of fats was first discovered, they were called “vitamin F.” Too bad this nomenclature didn’t stick—if it had, it would help remind people that we do need some fat in our diet.”

― Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating

You’ll know if you’re eating natural foods by reading the labels, following these guidelines, and using your common sense. 

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