food science

Why “Natural” Foods Are Not Always Better For You

By Suraksha Rajagopal, Food Scientist

According to the dictionary, natural means “existing or derived from natural; not made or caused by humankind”. Using this definition the natural ingredients in this world would be very limited. Most ingredients today are modified in some way by humans before being presented to us in the store. Using this definition even cooking at home wouldn’t be considered a natural process. It can be safe to assume that additives that are made from scratch in a factory are artificial. There is no natural component in these additives, so they are artificial. But, there is a gray area in between. Is sucrose that is extracted from sugarcane and refined in a sugar mill artificial? Technically, it does have a natural component but assumes this is true. Even if the industrial extraction of sucrose from sugarcane makes it artificial, does that make it unhealthier than the “natural” version of the sugar?

The most used natural sugar used these days is honey. Honey, if coming from the local farmer’s market is less processed compared to the table sugar you get in the supermarket. Should you replace your sugar with honey? No. Both Honey and table sugar are made up of glucose, fructose and/or sucrose and therefore have almost the exact same calories. They will both raise your blood sugar level. If you have diabetes, honey is definitely not recommended in your diet.  Sure, honey has some anti-inflammatory properties but it doesn’t make up for the calories/sugars you will be gaining. The increase in dietary sugar intake has been consistently linked with obesity and cardiovascular disease. Honey has been known to have antibacterial activity and can potentially be used to cure burns and treat infections. However, in your daily life, to lose weight/remain healthy, you shouldn’t be replacing sugar with honey, you should be reducing the amount of sugar in your diet.  There is a possibility that the polyphenols and other volatiles in honey can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but for now, there is not enough evidence to prove that.

It is not the source of the food product – natural or artificial – but rather than the composition that determines if it is healthy.


Honey Sugar
Calories from 100g 304 387
Sugars in 100g 82 100
Glycemic Index 44-65 65


Research into artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose has been very inconsistent. Some researchers have found associated weight gain or no difference when people switched from regular sugar to artificial sweeteners, which doesn’t make sense considering these are zero calories.  Experts in the field would be wary of most of the sweeteners in the market today. Sugar alcohols, most of which, have lower calories than sugar (1-3 calories/g) have shown minimal harmful long term effects to date. This could be a possible option for someone who is looking for a sugar replacer.

There are many other examples of less processed versions of foods not necessarily being better for you. Raw milk contains a lot of harmful bacteria and will definitely make you sick. Sure, you can boil it yourself at home but a factory’s process is more trustworthy. On an industrial scale, the pasteurization process is monitored to make sure that the bacteria in the milk is mostly gone. (Bacteria from the milk are grown on plates before and after the pasteurization process for this purpose). Obviously, the processing of food doesn’t always make it healthier for you. Harmful additives are added to food by many in the food industry. But changing that additive to a natural one doesn’t it make healthier.

Most consumers would have come across natural and artificial flavors on the ingredient line. Most commercially produced juices, chocolates, cereal bars will have some natural/artificial flavors  Artificial flavors are synthesized from scratch in the laboratory. Food companies prefer artificial flavors because they are less expensive to produce and offer consistent results in the final product. Vanillin can be synthesized from scratch or can be extracted from the vanilla orchid. In both cases you get vanillin, vanillin is vanillin, doesn’t matter how it was made. Take another example. Tartrazine, more commonly called FD & C yellow 5, has been talked about by many bloggers (food babe, food Studies on tartrazine have concluded that the dye is non-carcinogenic. There was one study that showed hyperactivity in a subpopulation of sensitive children. After reviewing these studies, the European Food Safety Authority warranted no revision to the acceptable daily intake level.

Tartrazine got its bad rep because one of the starting materials used to synthesize it is derived from petroleum, which at first glance can seem scary. If done poorly, the process used to synthesize tartrazine can result in a product with toxic contaminants (petroleum toxins). First of all this is very very unlikely and secondly, this can be true of any plant extracts as well. There are several wild vegetables and fruits that contain toxins (including tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, etc). If not bred and cleaned carefully, toxins in these fruits and vegetables can make us very sick (even kill us). It is much easier to control the synthesis of a product in the lab compared to plants in the wild. Plants are affected by climate, infection from weeds, insects, etc.  In the lab, the synthesis of a chemical is controlled; external factors are minimal.

It is understandable why any association of petroleum with food can sound like a problem but it needs to be understood that our whole world is made up of chemicals. Just because a chemical is found both in food and in yoga mats doesn’t necessarily mean the food is made up from yoga mats. One can argue that natural foods taste better than artificially flavored food (strawberry milkshake vs strawberry flavored milk). That is entirely possible. Strawberry flavor would not taste the same as strawberry, no matter how much flavor scientists try. That would be the only logical reason to avoid artificial flavors. Not including any natural ingredients in your diet can also lead to problems. Most fruits/vegetables are a good source of nutrients/fiber that is hard to replicate in processed foods. As with anything, it is important to have a balance.

Consumers should be looking at the composition of ingredients rather than the source of the ingredient (natural vs artificial) to determine if it is healthy.  This makes things harder for the consumer. It would be much simpler if artificial = unhealthy and natural = healthy, unfortunately, this is not true. Food companies are taking advantage of this consumer miseducation to promote natural (still unhealthy) brands. Hopefully, this made you a little bit more aware!


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Image – Photo by Artur Rutkowski



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