by Marion Nestle
Aug 10 2012

Here we go again: what does “natural” mean?

I did an interview with Alexandra Zissu who asked me to define “natural” as applied to foods.  Here’s what I told her:

I think of “natural”–that most overused and deliberately misleading term–to mean foods as nature intended: no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors, and only minimally processed (washing and cutting is OK, treating with nitrates or enzymes is not).

I’ve written about this issue in previous posts.  The FDA still hasn’t done anything to define the term for food labels.  I think it should.

What’s your definition?

Added question: Are GMO foods “natural?”  California courts say no.

Update August 11: Several people have written in to say the California ruling is as yet unsettled.  The website for what’s happening with Prop. 37 is here.  One reader writes:

The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.

Be changed so”all processed foods” reads “some processed foods.”

How this will be interpreted remains to be seen.

 

 

Comments

My definition: natural… not man-made. You know, like arsenic.

I agree with the definition but would like to add that natural means something pure .

  • Steve
  • August 10, 2012
  • 1:55 pm

In case you were not aware, hormones are essential to nature and reproduction. You and I would not exist without them. And many folks might surprised to find that they are significantly higher in several plants than they are in meats or even birth control pills.

  • Eliza
  • August 10, 2012
  • 2:37 pm

I think a complicating factor is what is “natural” depends on the context. Bananas are natural, but is eating a banana in Alaska in the winter natural?

Hormones do occur in nature, but administering an unnaturally high concentration of hormones to cows or chickens is clearly a human intervention that is outside of the bounds of what I would call natural.

I think a definition that limits “natural” to minimally processed foods, processed only using methods that a regular person could employ using rudimentary technology, might have fewer loopholes than a list of excluded practices. So, milling flour or fermenting foods seems natural to me, but refining flour into white flour, or granulating white sugar, or getting the starch out of corn, or freeze drying something — those seem to cross the line into high-tech interventions. If a food is divided into parts I couldn’t separate in my kitchen, that’s not natural.

For me, seeing the word “natural” on a food package just makes me suspicious.

  • pelle moulante
  • August 10, 2012
  • 3:41 pm

Unprocessed, in its natural state, preindustrial, readily identifiable as to the source found in nature, contains no ingredients sourced from a new jersey chemical plant or flavor factory. The opposite of the food industry’s typical “transformed pseudo-food” product.

The last link text is misleading. It’s actually about a possible interpretation that courts *might* take if prop 37 (GMO label proposition) passes. Specifically the California Legislative Analyst’s Office says that the wording of the proposed law may disallow the label “natural” (or similar) on any processed food whether or not it contains GE ingredients. But, due to other exemptions in the proposition, organic processed food might be exempt from this restriction on using the term natural. This could result in a very odd situation (taking most extreme comparison!) where non-organic-certified but non-GE olive oil can’t have the word “natural” on it, but organic faux vegetarian sausage could say “natural”.

  • Brad F
  • August 10, 2012
  • 6:59 pm

If you buried the food item with me, it would decay at the same rate :)
Brad

  • Khadija
  • August 10, 2012
  • 8:29 pm

Islam has a concept of Tayyib as it relates to food. Tayyib means good, clean, wholesome, gentle, excellent, equitable and lawful. That’s the standard I try and apply to my food and what I think about when I think natural.

  • Maya
  • August 11, 2012
  • 12:09 am

For myself I can’t define “natural” in terms of multi-ingredient food labeled, just the individual ingredients. My preference for the definition of “natural” would exclude genetic engineering, use of lab synthesized hormones or pesticides, and raising animals in ultra-confined decidedly unnatural conditions (like cages!).

  • Jayadeep Purushothaman
  • August 11, 2012
  • 4:03 am

If you can’t find it in the wild, it is not natural !

  • Mary
  • August 11, 2012
  • 10:08 am

Well, according to CA courts anything not directly off an organic tree or plant is unnatural actually.

http://westernfarmpress.com/government/court-strikes-blow-yes-37-campaign

Court strikes blow to Yes on 37 campaign

“….concluding that Prop 37 could prohibit processed foods **without** genetically engineered (GE) ingredients from being marketed or labeled as “natural”.”

Emphasis on **without** is mine.

What that means is that it will open the legal floodgates, contrary to the proponents claim.

Incidentally, the proposed ballot materials for prop 37 are here: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/vig-public-display/110612-general-election/

It also links to the court ruling in the challenge to the Legislative Analyst’s Office’s text about the “natural” marketing clauses. The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturallyh made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.”

Be changed so that “all processed foods” reads “some processed foods”.

  • iRememberWhen
  • August 11, 2012
  • 5:51 pm

“nitrates or enzymes”

So Marion you think traditionally-made/farm-made bacon and traditional cheeses can’t be “natural?”

Of course they are. What unnatural about a fine artisanal raw milk French cheese made in a cave?

[…] mean it won’t still upset your system.  Also be careful with terms like “natural.” You may be paying for something you’re not really […]

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