What Does “All Natural” Really Mean?

With the growing movement of families across the world going “green,” becoming more health conscious, and seeking more information about where exactly their foods and products come from, there’s been an increased push from large corporations and marketing companies to find new ways profit from this new trend. Unfortunately, more often than not, these corporations and marketers hold their own financial interests well above the health and well being of the consumer.

Walk down the aisles of any major chain supermarket, and you’re bound to come across several products (or entire lines of products) marketed as being “natural” or “all natural” or even “100% natural.” But what exactly do those labels even mean? And how, if at all, are they regulated?

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: the words “all natural” on the label doesn’t mean what you think, or want, it to mean. It does not mean that the granola bar is made from naturally occurring or non-processed ingredients. It does not mean that those beef steaks came from cows that were raised ethically without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. And it certainly does not mean that those dozen eggs came from happy, healthy chickens.

Meats and Poultry

Depending on who you ask, the term “natural” on food labels can mean quite a few things, and at the same time, not much at all. The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry in the United States, says that a product is natural if it contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”

Maple Leaf Natural Selections deli meats claim they don’t contain nitrites, but the ingredients list ‘cultured celery extract,’ a natural form of nitrites. Photo courtesy: CBC.ca

The FDA, on the other hand, defines “natural” meat and poultry as that which has not been treated or processed after it has been slaughtered – meaning that the conditions under which the animal lived before slaughter can include anything from antibiotics to growth hormones to genetically-modified feed.

Other Foods

The real problem appears when we try to find a definition for the word “natural” when referring to non-meat products, like granola bars, cereals, yogurts, and other snack items. In this case, there really is no clear-cut definition for the term. What that means for us, the consumer, is that any brand can market any product as being “natural” without any objection from the FDA, as long as the product does not contain “added colors, artificial preservatives, or synthetic substances.” Sounds pretty strict, eh? Think again!

“Natural” Cheetos?? According to FDA’s non-definition, this is perfectly fine from a marketing standpoint! Photo courtesy: Sabrina’s Crossing

Nature Valley granola bars marketed as “natural,” even though they contain additives, like maltodextrin. Photo courtesy: Grist.org

Check Labels and Research!

As you can see, the “natural” label doesn’t really mean anything, if it’s being used on products like the ones in these pictures. The truth of the matter is that the FDA and USDA do not regulate the term, so companies are free to use it as they wish. We cannot depend on these companies to be truthful with us, because let’s face it: there really is no truth in advertising; not when there’s billions of dollars to be made off of consumers’ desire to eat healthier foods and lead a healthier lifestyle.

It’s up to us, as consumers, to take charge of our food by reading labels, researching ingredients, and making informed choices at the grocery store. We can’t continue to fall for these underhanded marketing tactics. We’ve got to demand better quality food, more transparency from food companies, and a better understanding of the real state of food in our society.

Photo courtesy: Organic.org

Photo courtesy: EarthDay.ca

The only way to be sure your food is truly natural is by looking for the certified “organic” label. That label signifies that products contain no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, no genetically modified ingredients, and were not sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides. It should also be noted that some farmers simply cannot afford the organic certification, even though they practice organic farming; so be sure to check your local farmer’s markets for fresh, local produce, and get to know your farmers!

Do you pay much mind to marketing claims on food products? Or do you spend more time reading labels and checking ingredients? Do you try to buy organic foods as much as possible? What types of organic foods are you willing to spend a little more money on to ensure you’re getting a healthier product?


About the Author:


Sarah is a former school teacher turned stay-at-home wife and mother. She is the author of Nature’s Nurture – a blog about everything simple, natural, and homemade – in which she documents the changes she’s making to slowly convert her home into a more natural, sustainable, toxic-free environment for her family. Nature’s Nurture also serves as a resource for others looking for simple ways to take small steps towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle. You can follow along at her blog, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.


5 thoughts on “What Does “All Natural” Really Mean?

  1. Pingback: What Does “All Natural” Really Mean? : Nature's Nurture

  2. Great article! Before I got myself in the habit of checking ingredients, I had always thought the “all-natural” and “100% natural” products were legit.

    Another thing that leaves consumers confused is the actual names you find in the ingredients. Just recently I learned about “soybean oil”… Nice healthy ring to it, huh? Too bad it’s high in omega-6 fats, something that people are generally getting too much of. And we find it in all sorts of foods like mayo, crackers, granola bars, breads, etc. Same with “corn syrup,” an ingredient that has its own commercial!

  3. Labeling often just misleads the consumers by having different, better sounding names for poor ingredients to make them appear healthier. And things like “natural flavors” sound healthy, but in reality they are usually things like MSG. Informative article!

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