What Does the “All Natural” Food Label Mean?

label-100-natural_300If 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.

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Comments

  1. christopher says:

    after reading this blog entry-nobody really knows what all natural really means-cross your heart-and hope what your eating -is safe.

  2. the term that always gets my dander up is ‘organic’ which, strictly speaking, means ‘carbon-based’. especially annoying is the precious whole foods (aka ‘whole wallet’) where the produce is segregated as ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’. it’s like they’re trying to make you feel inferior for choosing the regular stuff, which is usually half the price. i’ve been dying to ask one of the multi-pierced white rastafarians who work there if the ‘conventional’ produce is not carbon-based.

    • Yes, strictly speaking, organic means carbon-based. But in terms of food, “organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” And that’s information I found on the USDA website. As for pricing, I’m not going to copy-paste something that you can do a simple google search on. If something is so confusing or annoying, why does no one ever do some research to find an answer?

  3. Grass and hay fed livestock is considerably tastier than the corn-fed stuff that these days makes up the majority of the stuff available in the meat counter. It’s what they evolved to eat — that’s why they have rumens. Corn is calorically dense, so they get fatter faster. However, they get minerals from grass — chrome, for example from the chlorophyll — that just aren’t present in corn.

    You can trace the rise of e-coli outbreaks to the onset of corn-fed beef as the corn diet alters the composition of the cow’s gut flora.

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