Sunday, April 12, 2009

Does "Natural" on a Food Label Mean Anything?

Ask ten different people what “natural” on a food label means and you’ll likely hear ten different answers. But almost everyone will probably indicate that the food is healthier. People are usually surprised — and maybe even a little indignant — to discover that for most foods, “natural” on the label can be nutritionally insignificant.

Natural vs. healthy and organic

Consumers often think that “natural” means “healthy” or “organic,” but it does not. According to the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most food label claims, “natural” means a product does not contain artificial ingredients.

For meat and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a natural food label means that the product was minimally processed without adding artificial ingredients, such as flavors, colors and preservatives.

For a food to have “healthy” on its label, the FDA has explicit limits on the amount of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium it contains. Also, a “healthy” food must supply a significant amount of at least one of several important nutrients.

“Organic” is a claim regulated by the USDA, which has specific criteria about the source of a food’s ingredients.

What “natural” does not mean

Some people assume that a food labeled “natural” is low in sodium, but salt is a natural ingredient. “Natural” potato chips are often as high in sodium as other versions. If you want to find lower-sodium foods, look for the claim “low sodium,” which means mostly no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.

Products labeled “reduced sodium” are generally not that low, but have cut at least 25 percent of the sodium found in the standard product. A “reduced sodium” claim is only reduced compared to the company’s original product; it does not mean it’s 25 percent lower than other companies’ versions.

“Natural” on the label isn’t any help if you’re looking for a heart-healthy food either. Given that the fat in butter and meat is natural, a food can be loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol and still be “natural.” Instead, look for the “healthy” claim, or words like “low in saturated fat” (no more than one gram per standard serving) or at least “reduced saturated fat” (a minimum of 25 percent lower than the original product).

A food labeled “natural” also has nothing to do with its sugar content. Just as salt is natural, sugar is, too, because nothing artificial is added during processing from its original form in sugar cane or beets.

Rules about sweetening from high fructose corn syrup have been controversial. FDA regulations right now allow a label of “natural” as long as the high fructose corn syrup is produced without adding synthetic ingredients.

For meat and poultry, a “natural” label does not rule out other added ingredients that can change nutrient content, including dried beef stock, yeast and partially broken down proteins (such as hydrolyzed soy protein or hydrolyzed whey protein).

“Natural” as a label on meat and poultry has nothing to do with how the animal was raised or fed. Also, the USDA allows the term “natural” on processed meats because smoking and salting are not adding synthetic ingredients.

Focusing on what you want

The term “natural” may sound like the embodiment of everything you want in a food to promote good health, but it does not address recommendations to limit saturated fat and sodium or to include whole grains and other foods supplying dietary fiber. Keep your focus on what you really want as you shop, and look for the label claims that can help you.

(This article was provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. A registered dietician is available to respond to questions about diet, nutrition, and cancer at the free AICR Hotline at 1 (800) 843-8114 during business hours.)


  1. I've always figured when a product is bragging about being "natural", it means it's likely crap and they can't find anything better to say about it. Even I didn't realize that they considered HFCS natural, that seems processed beyond acceptability. Maybe all it really means is no FD&C yellow #6 or red #4 or whatever. Dyes made from beetles, of course, are natural.

  2. HFCS are considered natural? What!
    I don't trust the FDA. They're in it for money just like some other government regulatory rackets.

  3. Great post Cher! The only way to be sure you are eating what you want to eat is arm yourself with knowledge and read labels for sure. All the words like low fat, reduced fat, non-fat, no sugar, organic & more can get so confusing. Your best bet is to find out exactly what the terms mean (as you said!) & read labels. Just because there is not sugar does not mean there is no fat. Conversely, those non-fat cookies & other foods ca be loaded with sugar. Organic has many meanings as well so people need to educate themselves on that. It is all craziness unless you gather the knowledge & read those labels.

    Thx Cher for making people think about this!

  4. I can't say that I'm a very good gatekeeper when it comes to what I put in my body (too many processed foods, etc), but that organic produce in my supermarket looks as if it had been grown in a midget garden. And it costs more! Gimme those artificial fertilizers and bug sprays any old day. ;-)


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