Image from bonappetit.com
Walking down the aisle of a grocery store, it is common to see products labeled as “natural”, “all natural”, or “made with natural ingredients”. These labels can be found on everything from peanut butter to candy to cereal. Many people see the word “natural” on a food product and think it might be better for them. In 2016, the International Food Information Council found that “natural” was one of the top three phrases chosen to define a healthy eating style. Additionally, many consumers thought a “natural” label meant the food was produced with no pesticides and contained no artificial ingredients or GMOs. But what does the word “natural” really mean on these labels?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are both responsible for regulating food labels in the United States. However, neither the FDA nor the USDA have strict guidelines for the word “natural” on food labels. According to the USDA’s guidelines, a “natural” product cannot contain artificial ingredients and should be minimally processed. Being minimally processed is defined as processing the food in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The FDA states that if a food product is labeled as “natural”, nothing artificial, such as artificial food coloring, has been added to it. Additionally, the FDA does not consider the word “natural” on food as describing any nutritional or health benefits.
Many people correctly assume that “natural” products do not contain artificial ingredients. However, both the USDA and FDA’s regulation of the word “natural” allows foods to be genetically modified and produced with pesticides, which goes against what many people believe about these products. Additionally, the word “natural” on a food product does not indicate that the product is healthier than an alternative.
If you want to avoid eating food produced with pesticides or GMOs, you can choose foods that have the “USDA certified organic” label. However, it is also important to remember that even if a product has a “USDA certified organic” or “natural” label, it does not mean that it is a nutritionally healthier alternative. Those labels only indicate how the product was produced.