What Does “Natural” Mean on Food Labels? Probably Not What You Think.

all_natural_ingredientsLately, use of the term “Natural” on food labels has been hotly debated. Food products have increasingly displayed the term to convey the food is somehow more healthful, or has some added benefit such as being less processed. And, if you’re like many consumers you’ve likely bought these foods thinking they’re somehow better for you. But, what does “Natural” mean? When I was writing this article I asked my husband what he considered “Natural” when it came to foods. His answer? “Anything occurring in nature in its original state, like an apple on a tree”.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Agency responsible for regulating the majority of packaged foods in the U.S., has a longstanding policy on using the term “Natural” on food labels, but not an actual definition of what this term means. Since 1991 FDA has stated that “Natural” foods include those without added color or synthetic substances and flavors, and without anything artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) included in or added to the product that would not normally be expected to be there. Foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners, or other plant-derived substances can be labeled “Natural” in addition to foods containing high fructose corn syrup. Meat, poultry, and eggs may be labeled “Natural” if the food has no artificial ingredient or added color and is minimally processed. “Natural” does not mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free, so shoppers must read the rest of the food label for claims related to use of hormones or antibiotics.
This loose understanding of what “Natural” means doesn’t apply to food production methods such as genetic engineering or other forms of genetic modification, the use of pesticides, or to food processing or manufacturing methods including thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, the term is not meant to imply any nutritional or health benefit. Another thing the term “Natural” doesn’t mean: Organic. I’ve heard so many people say “Natural” and “Organic” mean the same thing. They don’t! Products labeled “Organic” must meet somewhat strict production and labeling requirements and use of the term is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Additionally, products with the “Organic” seal can’t be genetically modified.
What does this mean for consumers? It means foods labeled “Natural” can have genetically modified ingredients (e.g., products with corn-based sweeteners such as dextrose and maltodextrin) and can be treated with pesticides (e.g., products using natamycin, which is also used as a pesticide). However, a recentConsumer Reports survey found over half of consumers report buying products labeled “Natural” because they (erroneously) think they’re free of GMO’s, pesticides, and hormones. The survey also found that about half of consumers (wrongly) reported believing that “Natural” claims on labels have been independently verified. In fact, the Natural and Organic Health Association recently abandoned efforts to develop a “Natural” seal for food products.
Over the past few years FDA received three Citizens Petitions asking the agency to define the term “Natural” for use in food labeling and one Citizen Petition asking that the term “Natural” be prohibited on food labels. In addition, over 100 lawsuits have been filed by consumers against companies using the term “Natural” on foods with synthetic and genetically engineered ingredients. While some of the judges in the cases have asked FDA to define what “Natural” means, the agency has declined – until recently. The public was recently given the opportunity to provide comments to FDA on what “Natural” means, specifically whether it is appropriate to define the term, how the agency should define “Natural,” and how the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels. FDA is currently reviewing and considering the more than 7,000 comments received.
So, in lieu of an actual definition of “Natural”, how can consumers be sure what they’re buying reflects what they think they’re buying? You’d think this would be an easy answer, right? Just buy foods in their whole forms – fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. But, what about indigestible petroleum-based produce waxes applied to foods like cucumbers and pears? Are those “Natural”? Or, genetically modified non-browning apples and bruise-free potatoes? They’re just apples and potatoes, so they’re “Natural”, right? It all goes back to what you consider “Natural” and why you seek out foods with this label.
Bottom line: Short of growing all your foods yourself (which, let’s face it, is never going to happen for pretty much all of us), the best thing consumers wanting to eat “Natural” foods can do is to not base purchasing decisions solely on seeing “Natural” on food packages. You could use my husband’s definition of “Natural” and seek out only foods occurring in nature and still in their natural state, but you’ll probably be pretty hungry and you’ll likely have some nutrient deficiencies along the way.
In this case, don’t put your money where your mouth is and pay more for products labeled “Natural”. Look past the label to consider the food product itself, and read the ingredient list for ingredients you recognize. However, if you don’t recognize something don’t just assume it’s bad for you. Become an educated consumer and know what you’re buying. Will this help you eat more healthfully? Naturally!