top of page

Natural foods: What does the label really mean?

What does the word "natural" actually mean on a food label? Would it surprise you to know there is no current legal definition of the word natural on food products? Food companies are hoping that you'll be more likely to buy a food product with the label "natural" on it. However, the word "natural" plastered across a food label was never meant to confer any special nutritional or health benefit on products.

One of the primary tasks of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to make sure that foods sold in the United States are "safe, wholesome and properly labeled." The Federal laws governing all food products, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, are regulated by the FDA. But, as the FDA says, "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."

For now, the word natural may be used only on foods without added color (whether made artificially or not), artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. For example, if a food was created with a synthetic vitamin D, instead of naturally sourced vitamin D from salmon, the word natural cannot be used. Consumers may appreciate that information. On the other hand, whether a food was made with food-derived colors such as beets, or created artificially in a food lab, would not matter. Since added colors are not allowed, that food may still not be labeled as natural. In the case where food colors are derived from beets, the term "all natural ingredients" may be used on the label instead.

The word natural on peanut butter labels

Confused yet? That's why the FDA is considering changing this definition of what natural means on a food label. Consumers are understandably perplexed as to what makes a food natural. The term natural can be misleading and mistaken for "healthier" or "better." Most of the comments the FDA received addressed the fact that the word natural is often taken to mean much more than it actually does. The term natural on a food label does not describe how the food was processed. Natural does not define how the food was grown. (We have the organic label for that). It doesn't tell the consumer whether the food was pasteurized, or if other food processing methods for food safety were used, such as irradiating meat or spices. It does not address whether the food was grown using any pesticides or what kind, or if the food was grown free of GMOs.

Natural is allowed to be used on products which are considered minimally processed and, according to the FDA, not "fundamentally altered," but that can mean many different things. If the food was smoked or fermented, it is still considered minimally processed. However, chemical bleaching would not be considered minimally processed and, therefore, ineligible for the natural food label.

Nearly all food is processed to make it edible and safe. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Frozen and canned vegetables are processed. I consider this type of processing extremely beneficial, as it makes vegetables more accessible and affordable. On the other hand, the term natural on a food label may give a misleading impression that the food is actually healthier than it really is.

What does the word 'natural' mean to you?

bottom of page