As you gaze around your local grocery store, you will be hard pressed not to find a packaged item that isn’t covered with labels exclaiming the wonderful benefits about the product you are looking at. Some of the claims may be true and some of them may lead you to believe the label means something more than what it really means. I often have to remind myself that these products are made by companies who are trying to sell you something and want to encourage you to buy their product. After all, they want to make a profit. So they hire marketing companies to try to make their product the best that they can.
One of the most confusing and yet one of the most common terms is the “natural” label. I’m sure you’ve seen it and thought that this must be a better choice if it’s natural. It must be better than a product that doesn’t claim otherwise so you decide to get this product instead of the alternative. That’s what most of us would probably do.
It turns out it’s not what we think most likely. Many people sent e-mails and petitions asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) give a formal definition of what natural was that they chose to respond. If you visit the FDA’s website you will find the following posted regarding the definition of natural:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
Basically the term is vague, as it assures nothing. In the United States, unfortunately the term is not enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the FDA and it doesn’t have specific rules for “natural” labeling. “Natural foods” are often assumed to be foods that are minimally processed, or do not contain any food additives, or do not contain particular additives such as hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings that were not originally in the food. Because there are few regulations governing the labeling of “natural” foods, manufacturers can include ingredients that may not be considered natural by some consumers. For example, Goldfish and Cheetos are labeled as natural, and high fructose corn syrup can also be included in products with the “natural” label (which is probably not something most of us would expect).
The USDA does allow the use of the term “natural” to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color. The product also must be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term natural — for example: no added coloring, minimally processed. It’s important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free and that these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA. Unless the FDA adopts a stricter definition of “natural,” consumers trying to make informed decisions should be wary of the “natural” food label. I recommend that instead pay close attention to ingredient list. If you are trying to avoid a certain ingredient or see that sugar is listed near the top then you know it may not be the best product for you regardless of the natural label.
“Natural” is a creative term that marketers like to use to get you to buy their product. The use of the word “natural” can be a deceptive marketing ploy to attract unaware consumers as they are led to believe it is the same as organic. Ideally the natural label should not be allowed to be used or it should be given real meaning. It’s okay to buy “natural” foods, but take them with a grain of salt.