What Does "Natural" on Your Food Label Mean?

By: Deena Shanker  |  May/June 2016

The "natural" label can have a serious impact with shoppers. Here we explore if the word natural is helpful or just hype.

The "natural" label can have a serious impact with shoppers. Here we explore if the word natural is helpful or just hype.
What Does "Organic" Mean? Find Out
Supermarket shelves are lined with foods labeled "natural," from chia seeds to cheese puffs to chicken nuggets. But it turns out the natural food label is, for the most part, pretty worthless: there are practically no regulations that say what a "natural" food is. (The exception is for meat and poultry—natural meat and poultry can't have artificial flavors, colors or preservatives and must be "minimally processed.") Why is "natural such a hot topic?
45% of consumers think the "natural" label is regulated.—Consumer Reports, 2015 Natural Foods Label Survey
31% of consumers think "natural" products are better for the environment.—Hartman Group, Organic & Natural 2014 report
82% of consumers think that if food is marked "natural," it should be GMO-free.—Consumer Reports, 2015 Natural Food Label Survey
1/3 of American adults think "organic" and "natural" are the same thing.—Organic & Natural Health Association, February 2015
So, at the request of food companies and consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration is taking a shot at a definition, asking the public to weigh in on the issue. (The FDA comment period on "natural" ran at fda.gov from November 12, 2015 through May 10, 2016.) Topics in the "natural" debate include whether corn syrup is natural, whether "natural" should be allowed as a label at all, and the controversial question, "Are GMOs natural?"
And "natural" is a subject with complicated ramifications. Take crackers, for instance: some have a simple, arguably healthy, ingredient list—whole wheat, oil and salt. But if the manufacturer uses soybean oil, it likely comes from genetically modified soy (unless the cracker is organic or certified non-GMO). So is this food, made with only three ingredients, no longer natural?
Now consider this question on its true scale: U.S. sales of food labeled "natural" total more than $40 billion annually, amplifying the confusion. Emily M. Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic, says that part of the issue is that people often wrongly conflate "natural" with health or animal welfare: "The FDA should define it so that shoppers who have been using it to mean 'healthier' or 'better for animals' can continue to use it."
Related: Find Out How to Spot Food Label Lies (Plus Which Labels You Can Trust).
The "GMO: natural or not" question is one of the more hotly debated topics. For thousands of years, farmers have bred plants to improve our food without GMO technology. Now, genetic engineering also aims for better crops, but by directly altering a plant's DNA. The results include herbicide-resistant soy, extra-nutritious rice and apples that don't brown. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing over 300 food and beverage companies, petitioned the FDA to allow GMOs to bear the "natural" label.
Because of all the uproar surrounding natural and GMO food, we asked two experts to weigh in to answer: Do GMOs belong in "Natural" food?
Yes. Almost none of the produce you buy is the way it was originally in nature. Tomatoes that were once a quarter-inch around are now beefsteaks. To change how something looks, the DNA has to change. Only, with genetic engineering, we can go in, see how nature made that change and copy it. And we've even discovered that nongenetically engineered fruits and vegetables have copies of ­viral or bacterial DNA inside them—and humans had nothing to do with it. We realize now how common gene transfer is in nature.—Wayne Parrott, Ph.D., plant breeding & genomics professor, University of Georgia
No. GMOs are not natural. We know that there are genetic exchanges that happen in nature because we have discovered bacterial DNA sequences in non-GM sweet potatoes—but genetically engineering crops in a lab is not the same as a gene from a bacterium or virus naturally moving into a plant. When you deliberately add bacterial or other genes to a plant, the plant can tell it's foreign and shuts it down. So in genetic engineering, scientists must modify the gene to trick the plant and keep it "on." It's a process that can never happen in nature.—Michael Hansen, Ph.D.,senior scientist at Consumers Union
Still on the fence about GMOs? Read on to answer the question "are GMOs safe?" plus more pros and cons of this technology.
Read More About Food Labels:
"Healthy" Nutrition Labels to Avoid
The Top GMO Foods and How to Avoid Them
10 Ways Big Food Is Chainging to Meet Consumer Demand