food label: what is “natural”?

Years ago, during my first year of college, I sat in a Nutrition course completely dumbfounded by something the instructor had just explained.

“The word natural is not currently defined by the FDA”.

Whoa! What? Can I get a repeat?

Prior to this encounter, I imagined a food labeling world in which companies stood behind their claims. Whether they were true or not, I thought companies believed their own messages (and I’m sure many do believe them). It was an authentic optimism that led me to this way of thinking. However, I now recognize that a food label is not a person. It does not have a heart. It is an educational and marketing strategy that can, at times, be confusing and/or misleading.

Before this begins to sound like a scare tactic or a slam against every company who uses this marketing strategy, please rest assured that I actually enjoy some products that use this labeling technique. I do not eat clean 100% of the time. While Jeff and I try to make homemade snack and desserts that have more earth-based ingredients, we know how to enjoy a good, indulgent treat from time to time. The purpose of this post is to bring to light (for those who are trying to be conscious shoppers for personal reasons), that there are foods out there that may be misleading you.

Now that I have addressed that, let’s continue…..

 I do not believe the FDA is to blame here in this particular instance. Their intended way for use of natural (expressed on their website) has been turned into a gimmick, by some companies, to appeal to consumers as a pure, clean product. I would actually like to give major props to the FDA because when I last checked (immediately before posting this), I recognized that they had been asking for public comments concerning the lack of definition of the word natural on food labels. They requested input on what the criteria should be for the use of the word natural. The commenting period is closed, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the future with this.

Untitled design (39)A 2015 Consumer Reports phone survey expressed that 62% of consumers buy products with natural on the food label, and 45% of consumers believe the term natural is verified.

Many people believe that natural is equivalent to organic. However, various chemicals, GMOs, artifical flavors, and pesticides can currently be used in natural products that we buy. For many, this is not a huge deal. However, for those who spend time trying to eat a certain way, this can feel like betrayal by the food industry.

I would suggest, if you want or need to watch your dietary choices, to look at the ingredient list of food labels and research why certain items may be in the product.  There are many reasons why certain ingredients or chemicals may be listed (specific techniques used in a canning method, etc). Some of my favorite products contain some of these components due to how they are created. Of course, most of us can agree that a fresh, organic apple is going to be more beneficial to our health than…for example…a syrup- loaded fruit cup. Yet, this is real life, and we must pick our battles wisely. No two people, families, or circumstances are alike. I would simply say to you to take the time and choose what is and what is not worth your consumerism, based on your specific goals and needs!

With Love,

Meaghan xoxo


U.S Food and Drug Administration

Consumer Reports

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