Featured Image for Yours, Naturally: A Quick Look into a Misleading Food Label

When buying a product that is labeled as “Natural,” or “Made with Natural Ingredients,” you might naturally assume that the label meant that the product or the ingredients were indeed that: natural…but what is a “natural” product?

Generally speaking, the food industry has been left to define the term as it sees fit, with little guidance from regulators.  In the spirit of the word’s generally accepted meaning, a “natural” product should really only be a product that has not been processed much, if at all, and should essentially be a completely raw product.  Unfortunately, when it comes to food products, current regulatory guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is limited.  The extent of current regulations is as follows:

  • According to USFDA regulations, the use of the term “Natural” in food labeling is confusing because a formal interpretation of the word’s meaning has not been established.  While the USFDA doesn’t have a standard definition for the word, it does not object to “Natural” being used if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. The term “natural” cannot be used on a product’s ingredient list except in the term “natural flavorings.”
  • For meat and poultry, the FDA allows the term “natural” to be used on labels if the meat or poultry product is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients (colors, flavors or preservatives). The label has to explain what the term “natural” refers to.
  • According to USDA regulations, the use of the term “Natural” is regulated with regard to its use on meat and poultry products.  Under these regulations, “natural” meat and poultry products must be produced without the use of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and/or other ingredients.  Additionally, the label must explain how the term is being used with regard to the specific product (e.g., “without artificial ingredients”).

It’s important to know that “natural” does not equate to “organic.” (See more on what constitutes an “organic” food here). There are many differences, but perhaps the two most important are that a “natural” product is not fed organic feed and producers of “natural” products have not been certified by an independent, government-certified inspector.

The lack of a clear definition of “natural” leaves room for a lot of ambiguity in labeling.  The USFDA’s currently used, loose definition essentially allows products to make natural claims when using any substance that is derived from a natural one, (e.g., high maltose corn syrup, vegetable glycerin, etc.).  While these substances are indeed derived from natural substances, they are in no way “natural” in the generally accepted sense of the word.

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The end result of this type of loose labeling regulation is that consumers trying to avoid or minimize their intake of heavily processed foods or food additives and derivatives (synthetic and/or “natural”) for health, medical or personal reasons may be confused or misled.  So, when purchasing products labeled as “natural,” you should be sure to check the ingredients on the label – you might be getting more than you bargained for.