The “Natural” Label Doesn’t Make it Natural Food

I keep thinking about a conversation I had with a co-worker today that left me totally shutdown and annoyed after the fact because I didn’t clearly explain myself. That tends to happen. I get in arguments discussions with people and am not good at thinking on the spot, and I think of better descriptions and support for my arguments an hour or even 15 minutes after the convo has ended.

So this discussion that has left me burning inside and annoyed with myself for the past eight hours was about food. Natural food to be exact.

Sparing you the blah blah blahs of it all, I’ll say that the relevant part of the conversation went something like this:

Co-worker: “… It’s like how food is marketed ‘natural’ and that has no meaning at all.”

Me (not usually argumentative at work): “What do you mean it doesn’t mean anything? How can you say that?!”

Co-worker: “Well, what does it mean?”

Me (unprepared for a battle): “Well, it doesn’t have chemicals … and things like that.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I was wrong. Or more precisely, I knew I just wasn’t being very articulate, because in my head, I knew what I meant. The word has a definition to me, but she was right in that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the food packaging world.

I rave to people about the glory of shopping at Whole Foods and being able to pronounce all the ingredients in any given food I purchase from there. I tell them that I pretty much buy all organic, but at the very least, natural — none of that name-brand junk for me anymore!

Au naturel oats 2.16.11

I know what “natural” means to me, even if it took me a couple hours of stewing to be able to process it. The main thing for me is what I see (or don’t see) on a label of ingredients. Trying to do the best I can with the best-quality food I can consume, that label means a lot to me. I just feel like I’m doing better. And something doesn’t necessarily have to be organic to have one of those back-to-basics ingredients lists.

When I think natural, I think no dyes, no artificial colors or flavoring and no chemicals to prolong a certain food’s edibility.

So the problem comes when things that don’t have those simple labels do scream “All natural!” on the package. And it turns out that the FDA has refused to determine what constitutes natural. That makes it confusing for consumers, especially those who haven’t done any research. Natural is not a synonym for healthy — or organic, which is regulated.

According to the Food Marketing Institute:

The term “natural” applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; grow hormones; antibiotics; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. Most foods labeled natural are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and heath codes that apply to all foods. Exceptions include meat and poultry. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSTS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires these to be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients that do not occur naturally in the food.

So basically, that is all what I took to be the definition of “natural” too, only I give the dumbed down version. Because really, if it’s free of all those antibiotics, hormones, stabilizers, emulsifiers and the like, we can easily read the ingredients on a food label, right?

I have to wonder why the FDA can’t apply the something similar to the USDA‘s standards for natural meat and poultry to the rest of our food, so we can trust labels a little more — even though I’m sure I’ll always be skeptical of them (I have come to terms with that being the journalist in me). In the meantime, at least we can be aware of the fact that “natural” on a label doesn’t always mean what we think and sometimes a little research is in order.

And at the very least, I think a good rule of thumb is that if you are not a chemist but can read all the ingredients in something you’re buying, you’re on the healthier/more natural path.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Unfortunately, natural doesn’t mean anything in terms of the quality of food in a package. There are national standards to meet “organic” but none exist to label your product “natural.” Just another green-washing scheme by companies to capitalize on misinformed or uninformed concerned customers. That box of cereal labeled “all natural” with a backdrop of lush forests and real vanilla bean contains a product which is very likely to be no different than the box next to it plastered with the face of a cartoon character salivating over a bowl of sugar cubes. Sad but this is the point to which food and marketing in this country have degenerated…

    1. jdgutc says:

      I absolutely agree with you. And thanks for reading my post!

  2. “Free range” is also an elastic term. For poultry, it only means that the animals have been “allowed access” to the outside. See http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FactSheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp

    If you’re interested in learning more about food safety and risk management issues for food processing companies, distributors, grocers, and restaurants, please check out my blog, foodlawblog.com.

    1. jdgutc says:

      Thanks for sharing the info! The more I (we all) can learn, the better.

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