What Does “Natural” Mean? The Best Answers We’ve Seen

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For more than 20 years, the Food and Drug Administration has been stumbling down a slippery slope with the First Amendment. The agency has been forced to defend its standings against legal challenges that allow them to label foods and drugs with whatever words they see fit. However, consumers, scientists, legal authorities, and health experts are continuing to advocate for the right to know what these labels mean.

In 2003, the FDA asked the public to identify which of its regulations or definitions should be modified or repealed because of First Amendment concerns. Around 775 comments were received on the official court docket. Additionally, when it came to the agency’s public request on how to define the word natural, more than 7,600 comments flooded in between 2014 and May 10 of this year (when comment forums were closed), as The New York Times reported.  

Despite its hazy meaning, natural is a resoundingly popular buzzword slapped on countless food products that grace our supermarket aisles. And people even base their food shopping decisions based on its appearance. In fact, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that more than half of consumers usually seek out products with a natural food label, often in the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients. And consumers are being vocal about the confusion, as you can see if you check the comments on the FDA forum. Commenter Nicholas Neild wrote:

The definition in the dictionary says natural means, "Existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind." Hence the word natural was specifically made to distinguish something that occurs in nature without any human interference. Therefore unless food was growing wild, then harvested and put on the shelf without anything sprayed on it except maybe water, it shouldn't be labeled natural.

Because the label is still being used, but the meaning is ambiguous, the word natural has quickly lost its meaning in the world of food and health. As a result, solutions to clarify a definition or resolve the dilemma of using the word are diverse. Some consumers said that a checklist can define what can be labeled “natural,” such as Marie Fields-Carpenter, who wrote:

Natural means nothing added and not tampered with. No additives such as dyes, preservatives, artificial thickeners, chemically processed oils, hydrogenated oils, artificial sugars, chemically altered sugars, sulfites, food enhancers, soy, GMO's, chemical fertilizers, petrochemicals, insecticides, herbicides, and all the other chemically manufactured substances our food is poisoned with… Before 1940, nearly all agriculture was organic. Real food is not made in a lab, it comes from nature, hence natural.

But others draw attention to that anything in this world can be called natural, therefore nothing should be labeled as natural. In this case, confusion regarding natural and healthy being synonymous could end. Stacy Carrizales commented:

Natural is a very general term that should be thrown away, given that essentially any product at one point did contain at least one item that was derived from a natural substance. The same can be said for ‘genetically modified organisms’ or ‘GMO's.’ Almost every, if not every, plant and or animal alive and currently thriving is a genetically modified organism – either through natural selection of evolution or through the use of artificial selection.

Because of the inconclusive quality of natural, some people want the word to be defined in a way that can be enforced. Jim MacArthur commented:

The greatest contribution the FDA can make in this area is to (1) discourage the layman's current belief that natural means "higher quality" or "safer to consume" …the FDA has definitions of the terms Low Fat…and these terms…have a technically correct meaning for the consumer. Create a definition for natural that can be measured and enforced.”

Others suggest that the word should be banned completely and that a new system for labeling is a better alternative. In the comments section of the New York Times story, Allan Rydberg, from Wakefield, Rhode Island, suggested that labels be printed with how the food was produced. He wrote,

For a start, how about just listing all the poisons and herbicides present in the food? Taking GMO foods, for example, that would include all the herbicide sprayed on the crops that have been bred to be resistant to that particular poison. It would also include pesticides bred into the plant.

Clearly, consumers and experts have a lot to say about how to know what synthetic, artificial, and genetically engineered ingredients are used in or are contained in their groceries. But in the past, the FDA has “respectfully declined” the requests of federal courts suggesting them to amend the language regarding natural labels. Regardless of whether the FDA defines what natural means, bans it from labeling altogether, or enacts a new labeling system, it seems that major changes and an official answer to the question "What is natural food?" isn't something we can see in our natural field of vision.