Harley Pasternak: When Natural Foods Aren’t Natural

05/14/2014 at 10:00 AM ET

Juice and Soda

Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. Tweet him @harleypasternak.

Last week I wrote about some misleading language to watch out for on beverage labels. This week, I’ll do the same for food:

“Good Source of Fiber”
Many foods in their natural states are good sources of dietary fiber. Fruits with edible skins and seeds (blackberries, raspberries, apples), veggies (spinach, cauliflower), whole grains (oats, quinoa) and legumes (chickpeas, lentils) are packed full of fiber.

However, many heavily processed foods today are void of fiber and often supplemented with secondary sources of fiber like inulin and polydextrose. These “added” sources may not necessarily have the same benefits of the naturally occurring fiber found in fruits, vegetables and beans.

Last week, my wife brought home Laura Scudder’s “Reduced Fat” Peanut Butter Spread. Normally, I’m a big fan of Scudder’s 100% Pure Smooth Peanut Butter. However, upon close examination of the label, I discovered it was far from 100 percent peanuts. It was in fact a blend of no fewer than five ingredients with maltodextrin being the second-most abundant. Moreover, it had twice the carbohydrates of their 100 percent pure peanut version.

When something is called a spread, that generally means it is not 100-percent derived from its main ingredient. So make sure you take a close look at the ingredients to see if there is anything in there you don’t want. [1] This includes fruit spread (usually a sugar-laden fruit jam substitute), butter spread and cheese spread. (Fact: To qualify as cheese spread, a product really only needs to be 51 percent cheese. [2])

Dietary cholesterol is only found in foods derived from animal sources. Any product that is not derived from an animal source is cholesterol-free. [3] During the “fat-free” fad of the 1990s, people shunned anything with fat, especially cholesterol. However, we now know that dietary cholesterol is not the primary reason people get high cholesterol.

For one, it’s saturated fats, not dietary cholesterol, that are the main dietary cause of increased “bad” cholesterol. More importantly, about 75 percent of the cholesterol in our body is actually made in our own body and not derived from dietary cholesterol. [4] Being overweight or sedentary, and your genes, can increase the levels of cholesterol our bodies make. The fact that a product is “cholesterol-free” is relatively unimportant when it comes to your health.

I’ll never forget my first time grocery shopping in the U.S., when I saw a “fat-free” label on a can of PAM cooking spray. How can that possibly be? Cooking spray is fat. It’s basically only fat.

Well, it turns out that PAM needs to be sprayed for one-quarter of a second to be fat-free. [5] I repeat, one-quarter of a second! Then I noticed the servings per container section said 571! Has a can of cooking spray ever lasted you 571 uses? I think not. So, while it’s not actually fat free, the amount that comes out in one-quarter of a second (the serving size) is below the FDA threshold at which it recognizes fat.

The term natural is meant to convey the idea of minimally processed foods with little to no manufactured ingredients. The truth is, the term is vague and has no legal definition in the United States (though it does in many other countries). [6]

Several lawsuits have popped up regarding the questionable use of the term “natural” to sell products. Of particular interest are three notable cases that are arguing whether the terms “natural” and “100% natural” can be used when GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are present in the ingredients. [7] As of now, the FDA has announced that it will steer clear of these proceedings, as its policy on the terms has not yet been defined. [8]

[1] Food Standard Innovations: Peanut Butter’s Sticky Standard
[2] CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21
[3] Cholesterol Content of Foods
[4] American Heart Association: About Cholesterol
[5] PAM Non-Stick Cooking Spray: About
[6] What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?
[7] FDA declines to define “Natural”
[8] http://www.hpm.com/pdf/blog/FDA%20Lrt%201-2014%20re%20Natural.pdf

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5150 on

I had a can of Pam last me over two years…. Guess I was doing it right.


I’ve never used PAM and never understood the fascination ‘Murica has with that product.

Anonymous on

I don’t understand why celebrity chefs do not fight for food labeling, GMO’s, and promote organic! They need to educate people of the dangers and practices of corporate foods.

Guest on

I don’t understand why celebrity chefs do not fight for food labeling, GMO’s, and promote organic! They need to educate people of the dangers and practices of corporate foods.

GEC on

I’ve noticed that “fat free” typically means more sugar – check the labels! For peanut butter (and preferably almond butter), Whole Foods and some other groceries have grinders – grinding your own means no additives. It’s a personal thing, but it tastes better to me without the sugars.

Carol on

Quite the opposite regarding fruit spreads, Harley. They actually have more fruit content than jams. They don’t have the high sugar content required to meet the standard for ‘jam’ so are labeled as ‘spreads’. When your wife picked up ‘reduced fat’ peanut spread, again peanut butter must have at least 90% peanuts; anything less than cannot be labeled as peanut butter. To achieve a reduced fat version, some of those high-fat peanuts have to be replaced with an ingredient lower/low in fat such as maltodextrin and once the peanut content is below 90%, you have a peanut spread. Is the taste different? Sure – lose some fat, lose some flavor.

Mike on

Celebrity chefs are just that, celebrities. They only look for ratings. They may know how to prepare meals, but generally that is where it ends. Most have no clue concerning ingredients per se even though they seem to have convinced you that they do. Heaven forbid if celebrity chefs would be our educators for foods.

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