Nov 18, 2015

Did You Know? What "Natural" Actually Means

As the trend in consumer habits has veered toward a preference for less artificial ingredients in food, the term "natural" has been popping up everywhere from luncheon meats to potato chips. But what exactly does "natural" mean?

The definition of natural means that it is something that exists or is created in nature rather than made by mankind. Crude oil, for example, is natural; the refined gasoline that we fill up our cars with is not.

In regards to food, consumers tend to think that the word "natural" means that the food is less "artificial" than a conventionally produced item. If you were to ask a group of people to define what "natural" means on a food label, you'll likely get a broad range of answers including no-added hormones, non-GMO, and no "artificial" additives. "Natural," for many people, implies that the food is somehow healthier because it is the opposite of unnatural.

So why would there be such a broad range of answers to a labeling question? Well, it turns out that that there is no right answer.

In the food industry, there is no set definition and no regulations regarding "natural" products. Currently, the FDA only has an advisory that a "natural" product is one free from added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. This is essentially an opinion and lacks the legal binding of a regulation.

The FDA has no set definition because so much of our food has been processed and is no longer a product of the earth. The FDA itself has admitted that it hasn't developed a definition for the term "natural" and its derivatives due to this difficulty.

However, the FDA is currently accepting comments on whether it is appropriate to define "natural" and, if so, how it should be defined and regulated on food labels. The FDA is accepting comments from 11/12/2015 through 02/10/2016 and will use public input to determine how to address "natural" as a regulated label. You can read more regarding this and submit a comment here.

The USDA is the only federal agency that currently regulates the use of the term "natural," but it only applies to meat and poultry. Meat and poultry labeled as "natural" must meet the following criteria:

1. Be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, and ingredients that do not naturally occur in the food.

2. Must be minimally processed in a method that does not fundamentally alter the raw product.

3. The label must explain the use of the term "natural," e.g. no artificial ingredients.

So if "natural" is not a federally regulated term outside of meat and poultry, does it mean that companies can simply slap "natural" on any product packaging and get away with it? Not necessarily.

The true implication is that the "natural" label could mean something very different from what you might personally expect, and could contain ingredients you don't consider "natural" but technically comply with the FDA advisory.

In the case of Carl's Jr.'s All-Natural Burger, the beef is sourced from grass-fed and free-range cows and contains no added hormones, antibiotics, or steroids. This is in line with the USDA's regulations for the use of the term "natural" in regards to meat.

But when it comes to Frito-Lay's Simply line of natural snack products? They adhere to the FDA's suggested use of the term "natural" in that they are free from artificial flavors and preservatives. Some of their products, such as the Simply Lays, are certified non-GMO. But if you were looking for non-GMO Cheetos Puffs, look elsewhere because this definition of "natural" won't meet your expectations.

What it boils down to is this: take any claims that a food is natural with a grain of salt. And remember that "natural" potato chips aren't any kinder to your waistline than the normal kind.