What Does ‘Natural’ Mean Anyway?


Written by Jackie Stevenson, DTR

An article by Consumer Reports came out recently, explaining the disconnect between what people think the food label ‘natural’ means, and what it actually means. According to the article, this is what Americans think a natural label indicates:

What SHOULD Natural Mean?
For processed foods, people told us:

  • 85% No chemicals were used during processing.
  • 84% No artificial ingredients or colors.
  • 84% No toxic pesticides.
  • 82% No GMOs.
  • 87% of shoppers who buy foods labeled ‘natural’ said they would pay more if the term met all of their expectations.

The FDA website has this to say about ‘natural’ labeling:

Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term “natural,” we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. 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.

Obviously, the average American expects much more from product labeling than the FDA’s vague labeling guide can provide.

Let’s see what the FDA’s ‘natural’ guideline really gets us. Let’s take one highly respected product that boasts being all natural. Hormel’s Natural Choice line of deli meats. Here’s the ingredient list for their Uncured Hard Salami.


Ingredients: Not Preserved -At All Times No Nitrites or Nitrates Added* *Except for Those Naturally Occurring in Celery Juice and Cherry Powder Ingredients: Beef and Pork, Salt, Contains 2% or less of Water, Turbinado Sugar, Spices, Celery Juice Powder, Garlic Powder, Cherry Powder, Lactic Acid Starter Culture, Salt, Natural Flavoring, Maltodextrin, Natural Flavor (Contains Dried Cane Syrup)

Honestly, I think this product passes the test, except for two ingredients: Natural flavoring/Natural flavor, which is probably a proprietary blend, yet a mystery mixture of ingredients all the same. The second is maltodextrin. This is a sugar derived from corn used as a thickener or stabilizer. It is found in most processed foods out there, and is generally thought of as safe. However, if we are to split hairs, you have to consider that most corn grown in the US is GMO (genetically modified organisms), therefore the maltodextrin is GMO, and your lunchmeat is therefore…you guessed it….GMO. I know what you’re thinking: “Who cares if the minimal amount of maltodextrin in my lunchmeat is GMO?”. Honestly, it’s not a deal breaker for me either, but it brings up a good point. As seen by the Consumer Reports poll, 82% of people think that natural means Non-GMO, and that’s just not true.

What labels should you look for? In order to meet the expectations of the Consumer Protection survey participants, look for ‘Organic‘ and ‘Non-GMO‘ labeling.  When buying produce you can look at the PLU (price look up code) to determine if something is organic or GMO.  PLUs for conventionally grown produce are usually a four-digit number, currently in the 3000–4999 range. If an item is organic, the number will be a five-digit number beginning with the number 9. If it is genetically modified, the number will be a five-digit number beginning with the number 8.  Anything labeled organic by the USDA must also be Non-GMO, yet Non-GMO products aren’t necessarily organic.

non gmo project
How do we fix this? If the FDA is going to be involved, using tax dollars from hard working people, they should definitely firm up their definitions and be more strict with their labeling. Until that happens, and we can trust what we read on our food labels, it is up to individual consumers to read the ingredient lists carefully and know what they are buying. You are ultimately in charge of what goes in your body, you shouldn’t necessarily trust a governing body to make those decisions for you.

What does natural mean to you?


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