Does the 'Natural' Label Really Mean Anything?

May 20, 2015
by Jennifer Still for Thrive Market
Does the 'Natural' Label Really Mean Anything?

Most of us know that supermarket staples are chock full of preservatives and chemicals, so we're on the lookout for food that's as sustainable, nutritious, and natural as possible. But hang on a second—what does “natural” mean, exactly?

While things like apples and eggs might immediately spring to mind, there are thousands of products lining our grocery store shelves bearing the label—and many of them are anything but.

Back in 2013, foods bearing the “natural” label were raking in an estimated $40 million per year in the US alone, with 51 percent of shoppers saying they purchased products specifically for that reason. And while a spokeswoman for the FDA defined “natural” as “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food,” the org also admitted that there’s no way to really define “natural," since our food changes so much during production.

Sounds pretty shady, right?

Because of the government’s murky guidelines surrounding the definition of what makes a food “natural” or not, there are no regulations or laws preventing companies from using the term with abandon. And while the FDA has occasionally stepped in to send complaint letters to companies abusing the “natural” label—for instance, Nestle’s “Juicy Juice 100% All Natural Juice Product”, whose first ingredient was most definitely not juice—it's clear that we can't trust them to play the heavy with huge food corporations.

So what does that mean for us as consumers? The most important advice is to choose whole foods that can't be messed with. For instance, purchasing an apple from the farmers market pretty much guarantees that what you’re getting is indeed an apple, not a facsimile of what once was an apple but is now a bunch of sugar mixed with artificial flavoring—you get the picture.

And when you're checking labels, look at the one on the back, not the health claims that come courtesy of the company. Too many ingredients—especially when there are plenty you can’t pronounce? It’s not “natural.” And that's really all you need to know.

Photo credit: hugovk via Flickr

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This article is related to: Food systems, Non-GMO, Organic, Produce, All Natural

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