The horrors lurking in our “natural” foods

We live in an age where we’re all hyper-aware of what we should and shouldn’t eat, what’s good for us and what’s not, but when it comes down to it, do you actually know what’s in your ‘natural foods’? 

Dr Mhairi Morris, a Lecturer in Biochemistry at Loughborough University, found her research into diet and cancer led her to discover some of the weird and not-so-wonderful things that go into our tasty treats. 

Here she reveals her favourite findings. Beware, you may never be able to enjoy raspberry ice cream again. 

As a cancer researcher, something I’m always being asked about is diet and cancer. In researching a recent post that I wrote covering the evidence on diet and cancer risk, I read an excellent book called Radical Remission by Kelly Turner.

The author outlines nine key factors common to patients who undergo radical remission, which she defines as statistically unexpected survival against all odds.

However, in reading this book I also discovered a rather disturbing fact…

Did you know that ‘natural’ raspberry flavouring is derived from the secretions of a beaver’s anal glands?! This flavouring is called castoreum and is often used to flavour ice cream, jam and sweets.

Since discovering this surprising little fact, I have paid much closer attention to the labelling on my food shopping!

This led me down a bit of a research rabbit hole looking into all the different things that supposedly ‘natural’ foods actually contain. In a world that seems increasingly obsessed with eating clean and consuming food as close to nature intended, there is a burgeoning market for ‘natural’ food products in the health food industry.

But just how natural are your ‘natural’ foods?

The vast majority of consumers believe that a food product labelled with the term ‘natural’ doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients. However, just because a product says natural, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘as nature intended’.

In the UK, consumer food is regulated by the Food Standards Agency, which restricts the use of the term ‘natural’ to foods that have: “ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man”, but ‘natural’ additives, colourings and flavourings are a whole different ball game and are governed by separate laws.

What constitutes a ‘natural’ product may surprise you!

‘All natural’ foods

Let’s start with the genuinely natural foods and the disturbing truths behind their ingredients.

Honey is an all-natural product, right? Well, not necessarily. Pure honey should contain only honey derived from the beehive, but is often tainted with a long list of additives, including sugar syrup, corn syrup, fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, beet sugar and ‘honey from a non-authentic geographic origin’. Some honey is even laced with illegal Chinese antibiotics and heavy metals – yikes!

Olive oil is another food product that you would be forgiven for thinking contains purely the oil from cold-pressed olives, but is often supplemented with other oils, presumably to bring down the cost of manufacturing.

Even extra virgin olive oil has been found to contain hazelnut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, palm oil and walnut oil – a worrying array of hidden ingredients that has potentially serious implications for nut allergy sufferers.

‘Natural’ additives

Often, we’ll see food packaging proudly claiming that its contents contain ‘no artificial additives’, which perhaps fools the consumer into thinking it’s somehow healthier, but in fact some of the ‘natural’ additives used are quite disgusting.

For example, ‘all natural’ vegetable crisps often contain xanthan gum to give them a “fatty mouth feel” (mmmmm, delicious!).

This xanthan gum is made from a ‘slime’ – yes, it is actually called slime – which is secreted by a particular strain of bacteria, and is essentially the same black slime that covers those vegetables you forgot about at the back of your fridge. Delightful.

Are you a fan of jelly beans, or other hard-coated sweeties? They often use shellac to give them a shiny coating, which you may see listed as ‘confectioner’s glaze’ on the packaging.

Strictly speaking, shellac is natural – it’s derived from the secretions of the female Kerria Lacca, an insect native to Thailand. Vegans, beware!

‘Natural’ colourings

If you see a food that is dyed using ‘natural’ red food colouring, or you see cochineal on the list of ingredients, you may be interested to know that this is derived from the female cochineal bug.

Crushed insects aren’t usually top of my shopping list, that’s for sure, and once again something vegans need to look out for.

Another ‘natural’ food colouring used to dye food and drinks shades of yellow is tartrazine, which is derived from coal tar.

Whilst I can see how this might be thought of as ‘natural’, again, coal is not something I’d choose to eat!

This food colouring has also been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children because it literally wastes the good nutrients in their diet.

For example, it binds to zinc, which is then rapidly excreted in the urine preventing it from being used in the body’s metabolic pathways.

‘Natural’ flavours

Some milks contain ‘fake milk’. Yep! Fake milk is used to enhance the milky flavour! This fake milk actually comprises oil, urea, detergent (!), caustic soda (!!), sugar, salt and skim milk powder.

The bottom line

So, there you have it – an evidence-based run down of what really goes into some supposedly ‘natural’ food products. The key take-home message is that fresh is best. Unless YOU were the one involved in processing the food, even if you read the labels closely, you really can’t know for sure exactly what you’re eating.

If you want to eat natural, then growing your own fruit and veg is by far your best bet.

More blog posts by Dr Mhairi Morris can be found here.