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Issue #07 (May 2015)

From the Editor

Does “natural” matter in food and nutrition?

I don’t think natural versus processed is just a fluff issue. Many people use heuristics to guide how they eat, whether they know it or not. It’s hard for most people (Soylent aficionados excepted) to envision a mostly processed/powdered diet being healthier than a diet composed mostly of less processed plants and animals.

For NERD, we occasionally point out that certain nutrients and supplements don’t need to come in pill form, and can be ingested through food. But constantly telling people how to eat sounds preachy from most anybody, and we are pretty much evidence-conveyors rather than gurus. That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions on an individual level though. And my personal opinion is that natural does probably matter.

I don’t mean the literal definitions of natural and processed, which gets into annoying semantics and downward spirals of argumentation. Yes, cutting a carrot is processing it. Yes, applying heat can be considered processing. I’m not talking about gray areas though. This is about a smoothie versus a Diet Coke. Pastured beef versus a zero carb protein bar with thirty ingredients.

Don’t get me wrong: artificial foods can be magically delicious. If you have enough self-control, Cheetos can be worth every fluorescent orange dusted finger that needs washing before using your laptop. A little bit, or even a moderate amount every once in a while, isn’t likely to be terrible for you.

But that’s a guess. There will be no randomized trials on Cheetos (I think). What there is though, is history. Many thousands of years of humans eating food that can help inform what you eat. You MOST CERTAINLY don’t have to be anyone’s definition of “paleo”. Humans can eat a variety of foods and thrive. Different people have astoundingly different reactions to food, due to their gut microbiomes, disease states, and many other factors.

Why does this matter for NERD and nutrition research in general? Well, it’s very easy to get caught up in research details and miss the big picture of health. Yes, heating tomatoes increases lycopene absorption. Yes, piperine increases absorption of curcumin. But so many people obsess over details while missing the truly high impact habits, like circadian rhythm entrainment and stress reduction. Avoiding yo-yo dieting and enjoying wholesome meals is a good prerequisite to supplementation in general.

And while evidence is our bread and butter, know the limitations of evidence. Just because research suggests that artificial sweeteners may be fairly safe, don’t take that as an excuse to drink two Diet Cokes every day for thirty years. From reading NERD, you should be well aware that study findings don’t equal truth. Although evidence is mixed, we’re just starting to find that artificial sweeteners may adversely impact the gut microbiome. While nutrition research is complex, nature is magnitudes of order more complex. It’s probably a good idea to consider both when making decisions for your own health.


Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

See other articles in Issue #07 (May 2015) of Study Deep Dives.