Food Labels Decoded: What Does “Natural” Mean?

What does “natural” mean on a food label? Does it mean “not processed”? Organic? Healthy?  Low Calorie?  The answer is, unfortunately: we don’t know.  Nutrient claims such as “excellent source of fiber” or “good source of Calcium” are all tightly regulated by the FDA. To use the terms such as “excellent” or “good” on a label, the food item must meet a certain percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of the specific nutrient. However, for the word “natural”, the same stringent rules do not apply.

In 1993, the FDA had this to say about “natural”:

“FDA has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural’, however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Use of the term ‘natural’ is not permitted in the ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase ‘natural flavorings’.”

The only government body that has tackled the term is the USDA in regards to meat, stating that spices can be deemed “natural flavoring” as long as they do not make a nutritional contribution, have no health concerns linked to them and are not derived from an animal.

Since 1993, the FDA has consistently said that defining “natural” is not on their priority list; as all ingredients must be listed on a food label and they do not allow vague terms like “natural” in those lists.  However, increasingly “natural” is appearing on food labels in an effort to attract health conscious consumers.  But do we believe it? According to an industry-led survey, we don’t.

The survey – conducted by Mambo Sprouts Marketing – found that 34% of consumers that typically purchase organic or eco-friendly items are skeptical of “natural” on food labels and 65% would like to see a universal standard for “natural” food items, preferably by a third party rather than the government.   However, this survey was targeting consumers who are typically purchase and are interested in “green” consumerism.  Asking similar questions of a different demographic may have produced different results.

Interestingly, Snapple was recently engaged in a lawsuit regarding their “all natural” beverage line. The complaint stated that their teas still contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and therefore the “all natural” claim is false.  However, Snapple won the lawsuit stating that – under the vague 1993 FDA definition – it is made from corn, which is clearly stated on the label, and HFCS is not metabolized differently from cane sugar (which is true).  In regards to HFCS, the FDA has been somewhat less close-mouthed; they have released a statement saying that HFCS is considered natural as long as no synthetic agents are used in the processing.  However, this is still misleading – the process by which HFCS is made is a chemical process that transforms molecules.  And is that natural?

The lesson to take away from this verdict is: always read the ingredient list.  If there is something on that list that you don’t feel comfortable ingesting, don’t buy it — regardless of what the label is telling you.

Tags from the story

1 Comment

  • When and why was HFCS switched for real sugar? It tastes awful compared to real sugar drinks, and has a profound influence on my physiology, in a bad way. It seems common in my town that people finding soft drinks with real sugar is like a special treat….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *