When Natural Isn’t

Dear Living Well Daily Reader,

A couple of months back, we asked you what was most frustrating or confusing about reading food labels when grocery shopping.

And for the majority of you, there was a clear consensus: the use of the words “natural” or “all-natural.”

What does it mean? Does it actually mean anything? Is it regulated? Can I trust it?

These were some of your concerns, and rightfully so. “Natural” is plastered on everything from, obviously, natural foods like baby carrots to very questionable foods like Cheetos:

If you plant a natural Cheeto, will it grow?

So first of all, let’s set one thing straight: There’s no regulatory rule for use of the term “natural” on foods other than meat.

That means companies can pretty much make up how they define the use of the word.

The FDA does have an informal policy on what they consider to be appropriate use of the word, though they can’t strictly enforce it. They consider the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included or added to the food.

The USDA requires that any meat labelled “natural” cannot contain any artificial ingredients and must be minimally processed. However, they don’t give any guidelines on what “minimally processed” means.

Pretty bare bones.

Soon, the FDA may establish a formal definition and policy for what “natural” means. And in just a minute, I’ll tell you how you can give the FDA a piece of your mind as to what that definition should be.

But first, let’s make clear what natural is not. Here’s what “natural” does not mean:

  • It does not mean the food was grown without pesticides or herbicides
  • It does not mean the food is organic
  • It does not mean that there is nothing added to the food
  • It does not mean the food has not been processed in some way
  • It does not mean that the meat was raised without hormones or antibiotics
  • It does not mean the animals were raised humanely
  • It does not mean that the food is non-GMO.

So for all intents and purposes, if you see a food labelled as “natural” and it comes in any sort of box or package, be wary. Truly natural foods won’t come in a box, and with the exception of meats or things like baby carrots, they won’t be in any sort of package.

And you already know the drill: Choose fresh, local, and organic whenever you can. Avoid processed foods, and look for meats that have been raised without antibiotics and hormones.

Those are the basics.

(And I promise we’re still fervently working on our shopping guide to help guide you with the nuances of food product labelling.)

But for now, we have the chance to tell FDA how we want “natural” to be defined, as they are accepting public comments starting on Nov. 12.

Here’s what they want to know:

-Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural”

-If so, how the agency should define “natural”

-How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

What do I think? At the bare minimum, a food labelled natural:

-Should be non-GMO

-Should not have anything artificial added to it

-If meat, should not contain antibiotics or hormones.

But that’s just me.

What do you think? Tell ’em!

To submit comments to the FDA, visit http://www.regulations.gov and type “FDA-2014-N-1207” in the search box.

To living well,

Jasmine LeMaster
Health Researcher

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