What Does "Natural" Really Mean?

Decoding deceiving food labels.

grocery_storeWhen you see the word "natural" on a nutrition label, do you automatically assume the food is healthy? If you do, you're not alone. Many people equate "natural" with "healthy" — meaning food that is good, fresh, and wholesome. There is great consumer demand for natural foods. According to one study, over 35 percent of new products on the market in 2010 claimed to be natural. Unfortunately, due to a lack of legal requirements and widespread misuse of the word on food labels, the term "natural" often ends up meaning nothing.

Unlike the organic label, which is strictly regulated by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), the natural label is not regulated for any foods except meat and poultry. The term broadly applies to foods that are minimally processed and free of: synthetic preservatives; artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and additives; hydrogenated oils; stabilizers; and emulsifiers. The USDA requires natural meat and poultry to be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, and ingredients. They must be minimally processed in a way that doesn't fundamentally change the raw product. The word "natural" does not apply to how the sources of the food were raised. If you want food that has been produced without pesticides or genetic modification, you should look for foods with the USDA "certified organic" label.

The FDA does say that a product is not natural if it contains synthetic or artificial ingredients or additives. It defines an additive as any substance that directly or indirectly becomes a component or otherwise affects the components of the food. Although some additives may come from natural plant or animal sources (and could therefore be called "natural flavors" on the label), they still may have to go through some type of processing before they're added to food.

The FDA doesn't require pre-market approval for products claiming to be natural. Food manufacturers determine their own "natural" standards and decide what foods they will stamp with the natural label. As a result, many products with this label contain products that most consumers would not consider natural. So how can you tell which foods really are natural? You have to closely inspect the ingredient list on the nutrition label to look for additives, preservatives, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and other artificial ingredients. If you find them, chances are the product is not all natural! To find real natural foods, you should look for whole foods as close to their natural state as possible, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

The chart below explains some artificial additives and shows you how to spot them on a nutrition label.

Additive What They Do What They're Used In Names to Look for on Label
Preservatives Prevent spoilage and changes in color, flavor, or texture. Maintain freshness. Beverages, baked goods, cereals, dried fruit, oils, margarine, processed and cured meats Sodium nitrate; sodium benzoate; sodium erythorbate; butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA); propyl gallate; sulfites
Artificial Sweeteners Act as low- or no-calorie substitutes for sugar. Baked goods, candy, dairy products, drink mixes, jams and jellies, soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners

Acesulfame-K; aspartame; saccharin; corn syrup; dextrose; hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (HSH); sucralose.

Lacitol; malitol; mannitol; sorbital (these are sugar alcohols that have varying effects on blood sugar aand may cause bloating and stomach upset)

Color Additives Prevent color loss. Add color to colorless foods. Beverages, candy, gelatins, jams and jellies, margarine, cheese, ice cream, condiments Blue 1; Blue 2; Citrus Red 2; Green 3; Orange B; Red 3; Red 40; Yellow 5; Yellow 6; caramel color
Flavor Enhancers Accentuate the natural flavor of a food without adding any flavor of their own. Soups, sauces, seasonings, frozen meals, processed foods Disodium guanylate or inosinate; hydrolyzed vegetable protein; monosodium glutamate (MSG); autolyzed yeast extract
Emulsifiers Keep oil and water mixed together to allow smooth mixing of ingredients. Peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, salad dressings, frozen desserts Brominated vegetable oil (BVO); polyglycerol polyricinoleate; polysorbates; sorbitan monstearate
Stabilizers Produce uniform texture and improve mouth feel of food. Dressings, frozen desserts, dairy products, sauces, jams and jellies Gums; propylene glycol alginate; pectin; calcium lactobionate; Methylcellulose (Gums and pectin may come from natural sources but may be processed in a way that makes them synthetic.)


Reviewed by Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN. 8/12

Last Modified Date: February 25, 2014

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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