If you’ve ever looked around a grocery story, you’ve probably noticed the ubiquitous “all natural” label on a wide range of food products. From Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to juice drinks and cookies, the label is everywhere. But what does it really mean? And does it signify some sort of health benefit?
According to the USDA (which regulates meats and poultry), a food can be labeled “all 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.
For meats, it’s pretty clear. All natural meats aren’t tampered with between the slaughterhouse and the supermarket, but it’s not an assessment of how the animal was raised or fed (i.e., “all natural” isn’t synonymous with organic or grass fed).
Beyond meat and poultry, everything else is regulated by the FDA. And here’s where things start to get murky. According to the FDA:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ … [The] FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
In other words, marketers and manufacturers can really use “all natural” any way they want. It tells consumers very little about the product they’re about to consume. So don’t be fooled. Instead, pay attention to a product’s ingredients, its nutrition information (i.e., calories, saturated fat, sugar, etc.) and the serving size.
Though the “all natural” label is marketing gold, it’s extremely misleading for consumers – and hopefully something that the FDA will address moving forward.