What Does “Natural” Mean on Food and Supplement Packaging? Maybe Not What You’d Assume
Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in holistic answers to health issues and you probably prefer natural remedies to those steeped in modern science. However, the answer to what “natural” actually means in America’s food and supplement industries is pretty vague. According to the FDA’s own website, products may be labeled natural if: “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 that food.”1 That feels like a decent start, right? But let’s dive a little deeper. What isn’t a natural food? Pretty much just ones that are grown in a lab and aren’t really food, but rather, food-like substances. With that in mind, let’s look at couple common foods and find out if they qualify as “natural” and why. As you read, consider for yourself if you consider the food “natural” or not and why.
Let’s talk Cheetos, those crispy, fried sticks baptized in powdered cheese. They’re surely not natural, are they? Wrong. Cheetos has a product available that’s proudly labeled, “NATURAL” in soothing, brown lettering that’s just as big as the font for “Cheetos.” They can use the label “natural” on this product because everything in them was grown in the ground or came from an animal…no synthetic, lab-grown components. (Just very lab-altered *cough.*) We at Wholesome Story don’t consider there to be much that’s “natural” about any kind of Cheetos, but legally they are allowed to market them as such.
What about fresh, sweet corn from your local farmer? It comes from the ground, its fresh, local, and maybe even organic. Surely this is natural. Yes it is…but it’s also not. The sweet corn we have today is very different from what Native people were eating when Europeans first came to live in the Americas. In fact, modern sweet corn wasn’t even available until 1961. Here’s the story. An amateur geneticist obtained some corn kernels that the US military had left in the radiation zone of their nuclear testing sites in the 40s and 50s. The DNA of the kernels this geneticist grew, like all the seeds the military had left there, was mutated due to radiation exposure, and these particular mutations provided the world with a new variety of corn…super sweet corn!2 Not very natural now is it?
What about Vitamin-C? Vitamin-C is almost universally associated with health and vitality. Food manufacturers put it in a wide range of foods from candy, to cured meats, to cereals.3 And why wouldn’t they? It’s a natural preservative, good for human health, and non-toxic even in large doses. But did you know that much of the Vitamin-C you eat is not, in fact, natural? Ascorbic acid, the chemical name for Vitamin-C, is usually produced in a lab and therefore not “natural.” Does this mean you should avoid it? Of course not! Without adequate Vitamin-C in our diets, we’d get scurvy. (No really, we would.)
I suppose the point I’m trying to make with all this is that the term “natural” on food and supplement packaging is basically meaningless. In the age of industrialized agriculture, modern food processing, and advanced food preservation techniques, “natural” doesn’t mean diddly squat.
Fine then, what should I look for on labels?
Instead of looking for generic terms, like “natural” try keeping your eye out for specific terms like, “no added sugar,” “no artificial flavors or colorings,” or “100% organic.” Really though, the most important, relevant information is going to come from the Nutrition Facts Label. This marvel of modern living provides tons of relevant nutrition information and is available for your perusal. Nutrition Facts labels have lots of information, ranging from the ingredients used, to the daily values of important vitamins and minerals in a single serving. This is one public policy Uncle Sam actually got right.
Ok, what if my food doesn’t have a Nutrition Facts label?
If your food doesn’t have a label when you purchase it, then one of three things is happening. 1. You’re buying minimally processed, unpackaged foods like fresh produce, which is very healthy. 2. You’re buying sketchy, illegally packaged food and you should perhaps be concerned for your health. 3. You’re at a restaurant or café and they don’t have the nutrition information posted. If you just have to know what’s in your food and you don’t have a label for it, try googling it (google knows everything). Google automatically provides a nutrition facts label for many of the foods you might try looking up. We wanted to know how much potassium was in baked potato once, so we typed in “nutrition facts potato,” and…voila! All the information a person might want, such as carbohydrate content, protein content, vitamins and minerals, it was all there.
The Long and Short of It
To sum things up, don’t pay attention to non-specific packaging claims; they’re usually meaningless fodder meant to lure in unsuspecting customers who are trying to improve their health. Pay attention to the Nutrition Facts Label and to government regulated claims like “organic” and “no added sugar.” Shop for minimally processed foods; the closer it resembles what it was when it was harvested, the more likely it is to be natural and healthy. And of course, don’t stress over it! Nobody’s diet is perfect and doing the best you can is all your body can ask of you.
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plants foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopath, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
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- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Use of the term natural on food labeling. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling. Published October 22, 2018. Accessed December 3, 2021.
- Robinson J. Chapter 3: Corn On the Cob: How Supersweet it Is! In: Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. New York, NY: Little Brown & Co; 2014:74-95.
- Chemical Safety Facts. Ascorbic acid. ChemicalSafetyFacts.org. https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/ascorbic-acid/. Published May 7, 2020. Accessed December 3, 2021.