‘Natural’ foods have been top sellers for quite some time now.
What is currently going on in the ‘natural’ segment?
Many people who buy pet or human food believe that products labelled ‘natural’ are better and healthier than comparative products that do not state natural. However, buyers of food are often confused about what natural actually means.
In July 2008 the UK Food Standards Agency published guidelines titled; ‘The criteria for the use of the terms fresh, pure, natural etc. in food labelling’. The aim of these guidelines was to provide companies with information when making product statements which were not defined by legislation.
The underlying philosophies behind the guidelines are:
- Foods should be sold without deceit and therefore should be labelled and advertised so as to enable a prospective purchaser to make a fair and informed choice, based on clear and informative labelling
- A food must be able to fulfil the claim being made for it and therefore adequate information must be available to show that the claim is justified.
- Where the use of the marketing term is potentially ambiguous or imprecise, the likely understanding of the ‘average’ consumer is a good benchmark.
- Claims should allow fair comparison and competition between products, sectors and traders.
Currently the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have the following statement on their website: “In direct response to requests from the public, the FDA has extended the comment period for the Use of the Term ‘Natural’ on Food Labelling. The comment period will now end on May 10, 2016. Due to the complexity of this issue, the FDA is committed to providing the public with more time to submit comments. The FDA will thoroughly review all public comments and information submitted before determining its next steps.”
FEDIAF (The European Pet Food Association) use the following definition for natural: “The term ‘natural’ should be used only to describe pet food components (derived from plant, animal, micro-organism or minerals) to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such physical processing as to make them suitable for pet food production and maintaining the natural composition.”
The question arises if the person purchasing both ‘natural’ human and pet food products will understand the subtle difference between the suggested definitions?
Alongside the growth of natural products is the growth in organic products. Organic products are by definition natural. Organic food/ingredients are grown under strict rules and there has been debate on whether organic grown food is ‘better’ than food grown for the mass market e.g. using pesticides are common place. Analytically the two types of food products are the same but are organic products healthier? Depends on whose evidence you choose to follow.
Superfoods and whole foods
Gaining exposure in the media are superfoods and whole foods. From many media articles superfoods can cure everything but again there is no official definition of what is a superfood. As the cause of many illnesses have become better understood there has been a focus on diet to prevent the illness.
The superfood trend exploits the fact that healthy lifestyle choices, including diet, can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer and boost intelligence.
The problem is that most research on superfoods tests chemicals and extracts in concentrations not found in the food in its natural state. Foods that have been elevated to superfood status in recent years include those rich in antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, E, flavonoids and selenium) and omega-3 fatty acids.
Dieticians and nutritionists avoid the term ‘superfood’ and prefer to talk of ‘super diets’, where the emphasis is on a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods.
Depending upon the source of the food, whole foods are also sometimes labelled as ‘natural’ foods. In nature good examples of whole foods are fruit and vegetables, they are one ingredient – themselves. However, if a product is formulated, say to contain wheat, the label can state whole wheat if during formulation the components of the wheat grain are added in the exact proportions as in nature.
New buzzword: microbiome
It would be unusual to walk into a pet store and not find grain free foods. However, this trend gave rise to the use of ancient grains within the diet, such as spelt and buckwheat. The food industry took this concept further and formulated the Paleo diet where the aim was to eat as our Palaeolithic ancestors ate. Coupled with observing the impact of diet so the understanding of the different microbial mixtures (microbiome) in the gut has increased with importance. For example, comparing the microbiome of healthy animals with obese animals shows they are different.
Changing the micro flora of obese mice turned them into the weight of ‘normal’ mice. It is claimed a balanced microbiome promotes a healthy body and hence good digestion and balanced mood. The microbiome also controls the body temperature converting food into heat. This is very relevant in obese pets as pets with a good food conversion into body heat do not add weight. Research on why this happens is still being undertaken.
It is the diet that is so important to balancing the microbiome and it is true your pets health will reflect what it eats. The diet controls what internal micro-organisms live and which die. The impact of diet on this gut flora is rapid and will have an impact within twenty minutes.
As awareness and research of the microbiome increases, expect more focus on a diet containing prebiotics and probiotics. Expect probiotics to change as more is understood of the benefits of the various micro-organisms. Microbiome will be the new buzzword and like all buzzwords the meaning will become blurred.
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