This post is “all-natural” (but may contain lead)

Have you ever wondered what is meant when a food product is claimed to be “all-natural” or has “natural ingredients”? Market studies obviously demonstrate a clear competitive advantage for products bearing these labels; otherwise, they wouldn’t be used so frequently. But why is “natural” such a selling point?

To me, the word “natural” is relatively neutral and possesses neither positive nor negative connotations. There are many beneficial substances that occur naturally and probably just as many toxic ones, too, and the word “natural” can be applied to either category and anything in between.

So what does the average, uncritical consumer perceive the benefits of  “natural” ingredients to be? To me, the answer is relatively obvious: no doubt influenced by today’s common wisdom as promoted by the mainstream media, most consumers labour under the assumption that “natural” automatically means good, nutritious and safe, while “man-made” ingredients, like apparently all things man-made, are necessarily empty, harmful and just plain bad.

But how does the consumer’s view square with the food regulators’ view? Do food regulators require food manufacturers to use the word “natural” in the spirit of consumer expectations, or do they instead allow manufacturers to cynically pander to the masses while permitting them to “work” the labeling guidelines in a way that makes their claims totally inconsistent with what customers expect? That is an important question.

What the FDA and CFIA say

Perhaps the best place to start investigating this issues is with the the food agencies that set the requirements for food labeling in North America. In the United States, that’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and in Canada, where I live, it’s the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Here’s what the FDA says (see here) about the use of the word “natural” in food labels:

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.

Needless to say, the FDA acknowledges the difficulty in defining the word “natural” and consequently has set few restrictions on the use of the word in food labels, except to recommend that products should not use the term if they contain blatant additives such as artificial colours or flavours. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word “synthetic” here in the context of food processing is not really elucidated and thus it is not really clear what that means. It seems, therefore, that in the U.S., when it comes to “natural” foods, almost anything goes.

CFIA, on the other hand seems to do a better job (see here) of defining the preconditions for use of the word “natural” in food labels, and even cautions food manufacturers as follows:

Advertisements should not convey the impression that “Nature” has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs. Some consumers may consider foods described as “natural” of greater worth than foods not so described.

They go on further to say:

Foods or ingredients of foods submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical or biological state should not be described as “natural”. This includes such changes as the removal of caffeine.

The document then provides two tables of food processing techniques – one that describes all the processes that have a minimum effect on the “natural character” of food, and so presumably do not preclude use of the word “natural” in labeling, and one that describes the processes that are considered to have a maximum affect on the “natural character of food”, and presumably therefore render the ingredients man-made. Of processes that have neither maximum nor minimum effect, nothing is said at all, as far as I can see, and one is left to wonder what those processes are and what they imply about use of the word “natural” in food labels.

Truthfully, the lists seem somewhat arbitrary to me. For example, “deboning (manual)” is considered to have a minimum effect while “deboning (mechanical)” is considered to have a maximum effect. I don’t really see the difference in the end result.

One positive item for me is the inclusion of pasteurization among the list of processes that do not significantly alter the natural character of ingredients. This is good because several years back I noticed that some “smoothie” and “fresh juice” vendors, such as those frequently found in malls, were advertising that their drinks were “non-pasteurized”. At the time I wondered who would consider this to be a selling point, and chalked it up to another case where food had sadly been made less safe in an effort to market it as free from human intervention. It is therefore comforting to know that pasteurization can be applied without affecting a product’s marketing options and I have not seen this claim of non-pasteurization on these products in a while.

Are the FDA and CFIA distinctions between natural/non-natural food ingredients meaningful?

So now we know that the FDA and CFIA roughly consider food ingredients to be “natural” if they appear in food in relatively the same form they occurred in nature. The FDA is quite vague in defining “natural” and thus seems to provide a great deal of wiggle room to food manufacturers, while the CFIA has a more detailed definition.

But I wonder, in addition to the obvious challenges in making this distinction clear, is there really any merit in it? After all, does it matter if an ingredient appears in the food in the same form it appeared in nature? Why is that necessarily something desirable? Perhaps human intervention can enhance the ingredient, making it better and safer.  And, quite frankly, I would prefer to have preservatives in my food (at least in some cases) if it means a reduced risk of the food being spoiled.

Also what about food items such as honey, which technically does not occur naturally but is produced by bees? Is that still natural? You might argue “yes” since bees are also the product of nature, but so are humans! So if the products of bees are considered natural, why not the products of humans as well?

Ultimately I think the problem is that the FDA/CFIA distinction between ingredients found in nature and those produced through human intervention is that it doesn’t say anything about the nutritional value or benefits of the ingredients. CFIA seems to at least understand this potential for misleading consumers and hence makes their warning, described above, to food manufacturers.


So what can we conclude from all of this?

  • The word “natural” in food labeling is poorly defined in the U.S. and can be applied quite broadly.
  • In Canada, use of the word “natural” in food labeling is more tightly regulated but it is highly likely that the definition is not entirely consistent with the assumptions about the word’s meaning made by typical consumers.
  • Neither in the U.S. nor in Canada does the presence of the word “natural” in a food label imply anything about the nutritional value, potential health benefits or safety of the food or its ingredients, which is likely what most consumers are expecting it to mean. Instead, the word “natural” only means that ingredients — for better or worse — appear in the food in relatively the same form they occur in nature.

In the end, it seems clear that use of the word “natural” is just a marketing tool used to make products more appealing to uncritical consumers, and should probably be prohibited in food labeling due to the high potential for it to mislead people.

– Dave


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