What Does the Word Natural Really Mean on Food Labels?

Explaining food labels can be hard, especially when it comes to the word natural
Natural Food Labels

During the summer, 75 percent of my groceries come from our local farmers’ markets. During the deep freeze of winter, when the markets are almost totally closed for five months, my shopping list is fulfilled at a large, big box store and a smaller, high-end grocery.

Every winter, when I’m driven inside, I lose the purchasing confidence I feel at the market. At the market I know the farmers, I know the food, I know the prices, I know how the veggies are grown. I buy and cook seasonally. I don’t know any of this at my grocery store and spend a significant amount of time trying to figure these things out. I use my brain when I’m inside shopping versus my senses that I use in the summer at the market.

Food Labels Explained

I am always amazed, when my shopping comes inside, by the variety, the colorful packaging and the convenience on the shelves. I am also heartened to see more products that I will buy at the big box store and happy that the prices seem to have moderated at the fancy place I buy veggies and meat.  

The labels in these stores jump out at me, just as they aim to do.  Everything seems to be offering something to me, some benefit if I choose that particular product. Natural and Organic, Conventional and Healthy. But what do these words really mean?

I am pretty tuned into the food labeling world. I know the marketing department at the big consumer packaging companies drive what is put on labels. Their number one goal is to have their product stand out on the shelf, so it sells. Which is a very different goal than mine, which is to eat good food.  

Labels are often used to convince you to buy their product and not, as I have learned, to inform you. “Natural” or “All Natural” is a food label that usually falls into this category.

The entry from Wikipedia says “natural foods and all-natural foods are widely used terms in food labeling and marketing with a variety of definitions, most of which are vague.

The term is often assumed to imply foods that are minimally processed and whose ingredients are all-natural products (in the chemist’s sense of that term), thus conveying an appeal to nature. But the lack of standards in most jurisdictions means that the term assures nothing. In some countries, the term “natural” is defined and enforced. In others, such as the United States, it is not enforced.”

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

What Should Natural Mean on Food Labels?

Natural has meaning for me. It makes me think the food I’m buying is better. It makes me think that the food doesn’t have anything in it that isn’t from nature. This isn’t true for the word natural.

The word “Natural” can be put on almost any food in the U.S. And like many of the food labels you see in the grocery store, Natural should be considered a marketing tool rather than a statement of healthfulness.

During a recent shopping trip, I was reading labels. One box of crackers offered a great example of the confusion I feel as a consumer.

The box was shelved in the healthier section of the store. The top corner of the box says “Made with Natural Ingredients” the brand name is Simply Balanced and there is a non-GMO label on the bottom of the front of the package. The side of the package talks about the simple ingredients used to make these crackers, words you can understand.

The disconnect for me is when I read the ingredient label it started with things I know like flour, salt, yeast, and sunflower oil but as I read more it also included dough conditioners, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and monocalcium phosphate. The last two ingredients on the list have a long paper trail of literature written about them, which is not flattering.

I’m pretty sure these crackers are pretty good compared to others you can purchase. The problem I have with them is that while the packaging doesn’t break any laws, it certainly leads you to believe that the crackers inside are the best you can get, something they’re not.

Looking for Natural

As I expanded my label reading, I found some brands that are truly all-natural and don’t have the synthetic chemicals added and those are the ones I will purchase going forward. I am sure that some food labeled “natural” is truly that, but most aren’t; which is why we really won’t know what natural means until there are guidelines.

It is very helpful to me, as I try to cook the best foods for my family, to understand that the word natural written on a food product, doesn’t mean anything. It’s also helpful to know that I cannot depend on anyone, to tell the truth when it comes to food marketing. I have to depend on my own brain to do this.

I find myself going back to my rule of being able to recognize the food you eat, as food. I think about the bag of potato chips in my pantry.

Examining one single chip, you can easily tell that at one point in its life it was a whole potato. When I do the same thing with the organic cheesy puffs in my pantry, I have no idea what those things are. The potato chip seems more natural to me.

I also keep in mind that the more complicated a product is, whether it is a box of rice pilaf, a can of soup, or some kind of snack, the simplest list of ingredients and the least amount of processing are my two guide rails in the grocery store.

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