Opinion: Foodspeak

Does the word "natural" listed on the "Natural" Tostito's tortilla chips label mean that these chips are healthier? -- FY, Fairfield

When it comes to packaged foods, don't automatically equate "natural" with "healthy."

From a food labeling standpoint, "natural" has no formal definition. Two agencies, the USDA and FDA, oversee the labeling of food. USDA, which monitors meat and poultry, defines "natural" to mean that a product generally does not contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. That means these products undergo minimal processing. For all remaining products, regulated by the FDA, the definition of the term "natural" essentially lies in the hands of manufacturers. That can be scary.

There have been foods labeled as "natural" with some very non-natural ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils (aka artery-clogging trans fats). A few years back, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, responded to this by petitioning the FDA to formally define "natural" so that ingredients that are more than minimally processed couldn't be called natural. I recently contacted the FDA for an update on the issue. Not surprisingly, after being on hold for 25 minutes, I was merely informed that "natural" remains unregulated.

Good news for you is that Frito Lay's brand "Natural" Tostitos yellow corn tortilla chips are truly worthy of being called natural. My abridged definition of natural means that the product's ingredient list contains only minimally processed ingredients that are easy to pronounce and comprehend. The chips you mention contain ONLY: whole organic corn, yellow corn, expellor-pressed sunflower oil and sea salt. Hopefully, this reminds you how important it is to look at the ingredient list of all foods you purchase.

While your chips of choice may be a better nutritional bargain than other varieties, remember that's not a license to consume the entire bag. On a calorie for calorie basis, "natural" foods" are no different than their unnatural counterparts. In other words, "natural" chips have the same number of calories per serving as processed ones.

FYI: The chips you cite do not use the term "healthy" as a nutrient content claim. If they had, the FDA would require they meet the following definition of "healthy" as a food that is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium as well as containing at least 10 percent of the Daily Value for one of the following: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.

Courtney Sansonetti, RD, CDE, CD-N, is a medical nutrition therapist and certified diabetes educator for Rehabilitation Associates Inc., 1931 Black Rock Turnpike. Direct all nutrition-related inquiries to c.sansonetti@rehabassocinc.com.