What are Natural Foods? Food Industry Secrets Explained

What are Natural Foods?  Food Industry Secrets Explained

What are Natural Foods?  Here is what you need to know.

Have you seen the term “natural” or “all-natural” used on food products?  Have you wondered what that term means?

For most food products in the United States, the term is not regulated.  While many products have natural labeling on the package, there is no universal standard or definition for these claims within the United States.

Although the regulations are minimal and confusing, the food industry uses the term for foods containing ingredients (or additives) derived from natural sources.

A big thing to point out is that neither of these labels should be used as an indicator for healthy or healthier.

Defining Natural Food

Defining natural food is tricky.  If you look in the dictionary for “natural food”, you will this definition:  “food that has undergone a minimum of processing or treatment with preservatives.”  As indicated before, the food industry certainly does not use the word natural in the same way.

Smiling Flask with Orange Liquid

Although the regulations are minimal and confusing, the food industry uses the term for foods containing ingredients (or additives) derived from natural sources.

When consumers like you are asked to define natural, the response is typically something around foods that are minimally processed and do not contain added preservatives, colors or flavors.  These chemical (known as food additives) could include hormones, antibiotics, sugars, colors or flavors added. 

FDA and USDA definition of Natural

In order to understand what natural means, you must first understand food rules.  To start, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no set guidelines or rules around the term “natural”.

On the FDA’s website it states

“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

FDA

In contrast to the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry and eggs.  Therefore, the term means nothing legally unless it is on an USDA regulated product. 

The USDA defines natural as

“ A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.  Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).”  

USDA
Natural Foods Infographic
Natural Foods Product Infographic

Deeper look into USDA Natural

Next, when per the USDA, natural indicates the products does not contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives and other artificial ingredients and is “minimally processed.”

I think it is important to point out what this label does not cover.  Natural labeling on meat and poultry products does not tell you how the animals were raised or what they were fed. 

How the food industry uses Natural

The way that the food industry uses natural labeling is mainly based around the types of ingredients and additives used.  Food companies may decide to use the word natural if the product contains ingredients that are all naturally derived.

For example, a food product can still be natural and contain added sugars, fats, preservatives, colors as long as all of the ingredients are considered natural.

what are natural foods. they are explained. beverage isle with many foods labeled as natural
Food companies may decide to use the word natural if the product contains ingredients that are all naturally derived.

Difference between Natural and Organic

Organic and natural are not the same thing.  They may seem similar since they are both used as Food Marketing, but they differ.  However, neither natural nor organic labeling is used to indicate healthiness of a food. (the FDA even says this)

The FDA does not regulate the use of the word natural by the FDA.  The USDA regulates the use minimally on meat and poultry products. 

Organic is regulated and has the most specific criteria and legal meaning. The USDA oversees the National Organic Program.  Organic guidelines are clearly outlined and food companies must be certified to use the wording and labeling.  Read this post to learn more about Organic.

Difference between Natural and Organic Chicken

what are natural foods. usda regulates natural usage for meat and poultry as pictured here in a grocery store
The USDA regulates the use of the word natural for meat, poultry and egg products.

A good product to compare the difference is chicken.  Since chicken is poultry is included in USDA’s rules for natural labeling. 

Organic Chicken: 

  • Must be fed a vegetarian diet without genetically modified ingredients or synthetic pesticides.
  • Antibiotics cannot be used for anything other than medically necessary antibiotics
  • though some may argue that there are farmers who stretch the boundaries of what is medically necessary)
    • However, chickens can be provided with antibiotics during their first day of life; the drug-free rule kicks in the day after the shell breaks open.
  • Annual inspections are mandatory
  • Outdoor space must be provided for the chickens
    • No specific standards for the size of the outdoor area
    • No specific standard for the size of the door leading between inside and outside
    • No specific standard for the amount of time the birds spend outdoors.

Natural: 

  • Contain no artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives or other artificial ingredients
  • “Minimally processed.”

You can tell just by looking at the number of things on the lists that Organic has many more rules.

Are Natural Foods Healthier

No, not necessarily.  The term is used for Food Marketing.  As stated earlier, natural to the food industry means the product is made with naturally derived ingredients. 

what are natural foods. minion in shopping cart eats a banana in grocery store
Not necessarily. Natural food products can still contain high levels of added sugars, fats and other ingredients, which are linked to obesity.

Natural food products can still contain high levels of added sugars, fats and other ingredients, which are linked to obesity.  For example, foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners and other plant-derived substances can be labeled natural.

Ingredients that you may think are unhealthy may be considered natural.  For example, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are labeled natural.  HFCS is considered natural, since the synthetic materials used to generate HFCS are not incorporated into the final product.  Most added sugars are considered natural and have been linked with health issues. 

In addition, foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients (GMOs) can be labeled natural. 

These are only two examples, there are many more.  Remember the term natural on food products may mean something different from what you thought.

what are natural foods. high fructose corn syrup is considered natural per the FDA.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is considered natural per the FDA. Natural does not mean healthy or safe.

Bottom Line

Now you know, what are natural foods.

When buying food, remember the term natural is probably not what you think.  Natural is not regulated and do not necessarily mean healthy or safer.    

References

Understanding Food Marketing Terms.  https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/understanding-food-marketing-terms#:~:text=%22Natural%22&text=USDA%20allows%20the%20use%20of,added%20coloring%2C%20minimally%20processed.%22. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

Understanding Food Labels.  https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/about/live-healthy/consumer-labels?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIsP2R9Jjw6wIVFEmGCh2YFATNEAAYASAAEgKD-fD_BwE. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

‘Natural’ Means Practically Nothing When It Comes to Food.  https://www.eater.com/2019/4/11/18304951/natural-food-organic-meaning-difference-hormel-meat-lawsuit. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

Interpreting Food Labels: Natural versus Organic.  https://nutrition.org/interpreting-food-labels-natural-versus-organic/. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

Food Labels Explained. https://www.farmaid.org/food-labels-explained/. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Questions and Answers | FDA.  https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/high-fructose-corn-syrup-questions-and-answers. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

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