What Does "Natural" Mean On Food Labels?

December 13, 2016
by Jennifer Still for Thrive Market
What Does "Natural" Mean On Food Labels?

Although many supermarket staples can contain preservatives and chemical ingredients, there’s also a good selection that’s nutritious and natural. But—what does “natural” mean, exactly?

While whole foods like apples and eggs might immediately spring to mind, there are thousands of pantry products lining store shelves that bear some kind of “natural” label—and it turns out many of them are anything but.

What the FDA has to say

It’s important to know that the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term “natural” when it appears on food labels. The organization has admitted there’s no way to really define “natural," since foods change so much during the production process.

The only (loose) rule that has been made states that to be considered natural means there is nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of source) included in, or added to, a food that would not normally be expected.

The grey area of this argument, though, means that since items like Perfluorochemicals (PFCs)—a family of manmade chemicals that are used to make certain products resist heat, oil, grease, and water—are often found in packaged foods. This means that it wouldn’t be unexpected and, therefore, would be considered a natural ingredient.

What does this mean for consumers?

That means the responsibility is really on the individual shopper to make good choices when grocery shopping. The most important piece of advice for finding natural foods is to choose whole, organic foods that aren’t prone to being altered.

For instance, purchasing an organic apple from the farmers market basically guarantees that what you’re getting is indeed an apple, not a facsimile of what once was an apple mixed with sugar and artificial flavoring—you get the picture.

It’s also ideal to check the ingredient labels on packaged goods. If you see something on there that you can’t pronounce, even if it’s alongside the term “natural,” odds are that the product is not the healthiest choice.

Tips for finding natural products

While you may be thinking it’s difficult to find (real) natural products, especially when it comes to snacks your kids love or condiments you use every day, it’s the mission of many companies like Thrive Market to provide more transparency to consumers when making food choices.

Here are just some of the most popular supermarket products and alternatives that are proof you can have less-processed foods that are not only healthier but also—you guessed it—natural.

Ketchup

Compare a bottle of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Ketchup to other big box competitors, and not only will you see the difference on the ingredient label, but in the taste as well.

Next time your kiddos want some chicken nuggets or homemade potato wedges, squeeze out some of this wholesome tomato ketchup on their plate. Here’s how Annie’s product breaks down ingredient-by-ingredient compared to conventional brands:

Annie’s Homegrown Organic Ketchup

Tomato paste, organic distilled white vinegar, water, organic cane sugar, sea salt, organic onion, organic allspice, and organic clove.

Conventional ketchup brands

Tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, spice, onion powder, and natural flavoring.

Fruit snacks

Kids love these sweet treats, but not all of them are made with “fruit.” Instead, many big name brands fill their snack packs with artificial flavors, “natural flavors,” and dyes, but there are other options that you can buy and feel good about giving to your little ones.

One option is Peter Rabbit Organics Strawberry and Banana Fruit Snacks. Here’s how it compares to competitors in terms of its natural ingredients:

Peter Rabbit Organics Strawberry and Banana Fruit Snacks

Organic bananas, organic strawberries, and organic lemon juice concentrate.

Conventional fruit snack brands

Fruit puree (grape, pear, apple, apricot), corn syrup, sugar, modified corn starch, gelatin, citric acid, lactic acid, natural and artificial flavors, ascorbic acids, alpha tocopherol acetate, vitamin A palmitate, sodium citrate, coconut oil, carnauba wax, annatto (color), turmeric (color, red 40, and blue 1).

Mayonnaise

Mayo is a staple in most homes because it pairs well with sandwiches, potato salads, and deviled eggs. But, what exactly is in conventional mayo? See for yourself in the ingredient list below. Then compare that to natural and delicious options that the whole family will love, such as Sir Kensington’s Classic Mayonnaise.

Sir Kensington’s Classic Mayonnaise

Sunflower oil, egg yolks, water, lemon juice, salt, white vinegar, sugar, ground mustard seed, black pepper, and citric acid.

Conventional mayonnaise brands

Water, soybean oil, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, whole eggs, egg yolks, modified corn starch, sugar, salt, lemon juice, sorbic acid, calcium disodium EDTA, xanthan gum, citric acid, natural flavors, oleoresin, paprika, and beta-carotene (color).

Chips

Chips are an addictive snack that find their way into packed lunches, office kitchens, house parties, and family barbecues. What makes them such a great snack is that they’re easy to grip and dip, and there’s plenty to go around.

But, while un-natural flavors lurk in most flavored chips (e.g. lime, barbecue, and sour cream and onion), consider a healthier option, like Jackson’s Honest Potato Chips, that don’t contain any manmade ingredients—just pure potato goodness. Compare the ingredient lists below, and it will be easy to differentiate which one is healthier:

Jackson’s Honest Sea Salt Potato Chips

Non-GMO potatoes, organic coconut oil, and sea salt.

Conventional sour cream and onion chips

Potatoes, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, sour cream and onion seasoning, skim milk, salt, maltodextrin, onion powder, whey, sour cream, [cultured cream, skim milk], parsley, natural flavor, lactose, citric acid, whey protein concentrate, and buttermilk.

If you’re trying to avoid unknown chemicals in your food, consider healthier options like the ones mentioned above the next time you’re grocery shopping. There’s still plenty of delicious pantry goods for everyone in the family.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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This article is related to: Food, Healthy Eating, Nutrition, Snack, Educational

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