What is natural? Natural is a very vague term often used to try to make people feel good about what they eat. Perhaps a good perspective on this sometimes deceiving positive mental image is to remember that ant bites, shellfish poisoning, salmonella and cyanide are natural, too, and they certainly don’t promote good health. The term “natural foods” refers to substances that are considered safe to eat. Are they? Does the term help us pick out healthier foods? Many times it doesn’t, but sometimes it does. It’s good to know when!
The Bing dictionary says that natural food is “unprocessed food: food that has undergone no or minimal processing and contains no additives such as preservatives or artificial coloring.” That would be my definition, and probably many other people’s too, however, try reading the ingredient list of your favorite “all-natural” ice cream. Every single ingredient is a highly-processed food. The milk doesn’t go straight from the cow to the ice cream. The sugar cane grower doesn’t throw in an armload of sugar cane. The vanilla bean isn’t picked and dropped into the mix. Perhaps the egg comes straight from the hen? I don’t know about that one, but I do know that the chicken that produced the egg was raised using very unnatural means such as antibiotics and tiny cages. The “natural” ingredients in the all-natural ice cream certainly don’t match the dictionary’s (or most people’s) definition. So, whose definition is the ice cream-maker using?
The US Food and Drug Administration has deliberately avoided defining the term. In 1993, they simply stated that the term “natural” may NOT be applied to any product with artificial colors, flavors, or chemical additives in it. The word “natural” may NOT be used in the ingredient list except to describe “natural flavors.” This is as close to defining “natural” as the FDA comes. Clearly, natural does not mean unprocessed!
Another thing to be aware of is that natural foods are not organic. Organic foods have to meet a stringent set of regulations in order to apply the organic label. As you can see from the lack of definition by the FDA, there are no such regulations for the term natural when it comes to vegetables, fruit and dairy. This lack of definition for natural foods explains the widespread use of it on the labels of highly-processed foods such as ice cream. Natural foods are not necessarily healthier than foods that don’t carry the label. Don’t let the label “natural” substitute for reading the ingredients. If the food contains a lot of sugar, trans fats or highly-processed ingredients, it is obviously not the best choice for optimum health.
Meat may be one area that the term “natural” is helpful, though. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service uses around a thousand words to define the use of the label “natural” on meat and poultry. Here’s a very small portion of the definition:
The term “natural” may be used on labeling for meat products and poultry products, provided the applicant for such labeling demonstrates that:
(1) the product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and (2) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. Minimal processing may include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting, or (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole, intact food into component parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumen and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices… Note: Sugar and natural flavorings from oleoresins or extractives are acceptable for “all natural” claims.”
Additionally, natural meats contain no antibiotics, animal by-products or growth stimulants. Knowing this can be helpful. Beef or chicken labeled “natural,” while not preferable to free range or organic meat, is probably healthier than meat lacking the label. Be aware that regulations do allow “natural” meat or poultry to be injected with water or saline, and most meat is still processed in a bleach bath. It’s also important to note that no such regulations apply to fish or seafood.
Perhaps the best answer to whether natural foods are really natural is this: Currently, natural foods are not very natural. However, the definition of the term “natural food “is still under construction. Don’t completely disregard the description “natural” on packaged food, but be aware that the word is mainly a “feel good” word. Unless you make a practice of reading labels and consuming only whole foods, you have no way of knowing for sure if the product you are consuming is really “natural.” Why not make a step in that direction anyway? It will help you to really choose the most “natural” food for you and your family.