by Marion Nestle
Mar 1 2012

What about that pesky “natural” on food labels? has issued a collection of its recent articles on “natural” and processing.  At issue is the meaning of “natural,” which many people perceive as equivalent to organic or healthy.  As I’ve said before, it isn’t.

Natural has no regulatory meaning.  The FDA merely says (note obfuscating double negatives):

From a food science perspective, 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.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

One thing is clear: “natural” sells food products.

Selling processed foods in a whole food world? Authenticity is key: Consumers increasingly are choosing whole and unprocessed foods – so is it the end of the line for processed food manufacturers? Not if they move with the times, say ingredient suppliers.

Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does ‘clean’ really mean? Attempts to link clean-labeling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that research now shows shoppers equate ‘healthy’ with ‘natural’ or ‘minimally processed’ foods.

‘Natural': The most meaningless word on your food label?  Consumers, the marketers all tell us, want foods that are ‘wholesome’, ‘authentic’, and above all ‘natural’, although few of them can articulate what this means.

‘Processed’ foods are often high in sodium – but what’s a processed food? About 75% of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. It’s a regularly cited figure – but what exactly is a ‘processed’ food? Consumers might be surprised.

Processing is a dirty word – but we’ll need more of it to feed the world. Processing has become a dirty word, but we are going to need more processing, not less, in order to feed a growing population, according to professor and head of food science at Penn State University John Floros.

FDA: get to work!

  • Michele Jacobson

    There is a very well-know restaurant in NYC…it had once been cutting edge for its wide usage of pastured meats and free-range chicken, as well as organic produce. It’s been around for years and the prices on the menu reflected the quality of ingredients. Of course I understood this and was willing to pay the price. We hadn’t been there in a few years and went recently; all the meat on the menu was now termed “natural”! I wanted to scream that the patrons were being duped! But the place was just as packed as always.

    I have lectured at NOFA conferences and occasionally let the word “natural” slip; people in the room have yelled at me, and rightly so! It’s a mistake I won’t let happen again, as the meaning has indeed changed.

  • Steve Dawson

    My company would welcome a formal definition of “natural” from the FDA.

    We have until now not placed any claims on our packaging, believing the a butter-flour-sugar-salt ingredient listing required no further explanation.

    However, we’ve found our products being pushed off shelves by competitor products claiming that the sun, moon and stars have blessed their manufacture.

    So, we’ve placed a symbol on our packs that states “All-natural ingredients; made with no additives or flavorings.”

    We did this reluctantly, as a defensive measure, and would much prefer to abide by an FDA definition. Ideally, if fewer products made a natural claim, we would be happy to drop our symbol and revert to clean, simple packaging.

  • Pingback: What Are ‘Natural’ Foods? | Disinformation()

  • Ken Leebow

    My favorite use of the word natural for food comes from Nestle … as Marion would say … No relation.

    Enjoy the natural fruit antioxidants …

  • Cathy Richards

    My favourite processed food? Frozen spinach, either loose or in tiny 2 Tbsp blocks. GREAT for adding to pasta, soup, etc, and much less packaging and wasted spinach than the plastic bins of prewashed spinach.

    2nd favourite. Tied with frozen kernel corn, frozen roasted red pepper pieces (ok, these have some added sodium), and frozen squash cubes.

    For a single person who doesn’t like to cook very often, and finds it very hard to buy a variety of fresh veggies without composting half of them at the end of the week, frozen veggies are fantastic.

  • FarmerJane

    The term certified organic stands for animal suffering to me. What I’ve observed on some of the certified organic farms are some farmers willing to let an animal stand burning with a fever rather than treating. I watched a local wannabe certified” organic” farm with several dead cows dragged out dead even after local veterinarians implored the farmer to treat the cows. He refused saying he could not risk his getting his organic certified herd to treat them and he would take his chances on them getting better. The pretty little cows paid one hell of a price with their lives for the sake of the farmer trying to attain organic certification. There is also the requirement that a cow who is treated even once then be removed from the herd (this usually means “slaughtered”.) I would far rather get meat or milk from a farm where the farmer lets me know if she has used antibiotics to ever treat a sick animal. Its better animal husbandry to treat and keep an animal, while doing proper lab testing and withholding for residues. Far more compassionate to me than the alternatives. Animal welfare trumps certifications that deprive animals of modern care, while enabling them to stay in the herd if ever treated for illness. For some people, keeping their herd together and keeping great animals in a closed herd means far more than organic certification. Unfortunately, the consumers have no idea of what goes on behind the scenes. And, then we also have the consumers who tell me they buy ONLY organic milk, they should read Cornucopia’s report on the supposed orgaqnic milk coming in from CAFO’s who barely graze, if at all. USDA doesn’t have staff to inspect. And, laughably, the marketing wings of the Big Organic companies show consumers photos of happy little farmers while hauling milk in from CAFO’s. And, they also tell the consumers that the milk from the regular family farms is the next best thing to poison. All in the name of the dollar. Just Organic$Washing. Try to know your farmers, consumers, you are on the right track by asking questions. So much better than labels if at all possible.

  • Anthro

    Thank you FarmerJane.

    I’ve made this complaint numerous times. I want no part of “organic’ that turns out to be a total disregard for science and medicine.

    I stopped buying Organic Valley some years ago when I found out that many of their farmers use HOMEOPATHY (that is, water) to treat very sick cows. Antibiotics are not forbidden for medical use, they just require the cow to be isolated for a period of time for them to clear her system. But some of these farmers eschew science and substitute folklore and mythology at the expense of the cows.

    Now I get my dairy from a well-managed, modern farm that does some organic (and treats sick cows with scientific methods) and raises conventional cows on the same property with very similar conditions. Most importantly, all are pastured except for the worst of the winter (Wisconsin). It is a family-owned and operated farm. The milk and other products are very fresh and keep much longer than other brands. They welcome visitors and are always willing to answer questions about the cows and their methods.

    This milk is available at several markets and they supply our local coffee shop chain as well–which is also a very green business that uses wind power and composts all of its grounds, among other good practices. I think it beats some of organic’s practices by a mile.

  • Pingback: What Does ‘Natural’ Even Mean? « Rottin' in Denmark()

  • FarmerJane

    Thanks, Anthro. These labels of natural, organic, etc. do absolutely nothing to relate the production of the food to the natural resources of the region where they are produced. Speaking in terms of dairy, its the natural resources of the grasslands that count (in terms of milk production, cow care, food production base, grasslands ecology, grasslands biodiveristy) not the little labels of the 1% who produce under the certified organic label. Food does not come from thin air. Big urban centers need to be aware of food security and making best use of the natural resources of their own region to feed themselves, especially if any time of trouble should arise. Big organics in it for the money, using labels for their financial gain, are misleading away from regional food security. Dangerous. Consumers, please try to look at the natural resources of your region and save your food security. If not for you, for the next generation.

  • Sarah

    Either you have your own farm or deal with the way food providers handle their business to feed the masses. Someone is always going to find something wrong with every food source out there. . So there are some casualties of animals along the way. What was the cattle population back in time when people had to farm or hunt their own food? How many animals died from sickness then? Go to a farm where 100 cows are crammed into an extremely small area an they are too fat to function properly then tell me how you feel. Personally I don’t want to eat meat that was once terminally ill then brought back to life with science, but I don’t have a choice in most cases. Educating yourself on nutrition, and portion sizes is the best thing anyone can do for themselves, everything in moderation. That way farmers don’t have to produce as much and can spend more time on developing healthier nutrient rich food.

  • FG_2009

    FarmerJane and Anthro – interesting comments. I guess we went from one extreme (overmedication, hormones to increase milk production) to another extreme (no medication at all) – extremes are not good, common sense is good.

    We know that if you take medication it goes to the milk – it happens for breastfeeding moms, it happens for cows (I know sounds weird but we are all mammals aren’t we?)

    The common sense is treat the animals, keep them isolated while under treatment (who would want to have milk from a sick animal) and wait until the antibioitics wear off the body – they don’t stay forever…

    I dont understand why common sense doesn’t exist??? What’s happening in this society?

  • Pingback: What Are ‘Natural’ Foods? | Truth Is Scary()

  • Rick Kohut

    Interesting Blog, I agree – the word “Natural” is misleading in many cases and very confusing for consumers. As a nutritionist I am always helping people in defining it’s meaning…and it’s always different. So read the labels and always get more information.

  • Pingback: {weekend reading} regulation station | FROM SCRATCH CLUB()

  • ileana

    I’d like to see some regulation of this word. It’d be nice to bring my guard down a bit every time I go into the grocery store.

    Anyway, great post as always. One of my favorite and most eye-opening college classes was “Food Politics” and I’ve enjoyed your blog in the years since.

  • Liz

    One nice thing that the ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods would do is to ban the use of the label “natural” on foods that contained GE ingredients. This would definitely limit the use of the label, so it would finally mean something again!

  • Pingback: News Feed: March 7, 2012 | JBF Food Conference()

  • Pingback: It’s a Girl - Blog Archive » natural woman()

  • Pingback: Are Preservatives in Food Bad for My Health? | Greatist()

  • Pingback: The ever-popular “Natural” label! | Food Digest()

  • Pingback: Natural Food | CAMAR()

  • Pingback: One Orange a Day Weblog » Food labels()

  • Pingback: The label 'All Natural' means absolutely nothing - A Sheep No More()

  • Pingback: Organic Printable Food Labels Ingredients « Healthfood Tips()

  • Pingback: Organic Pictures Of Food Labels With Ingredients « Healthfood Tips()

  • Pingback: Organic Food Labels With Ingredients « Healthfood Tips()