What Is “Natural,” Anyway? FDA Edition

You frequently see the word “Natural” on food packaging, but what does it mean? Probably not what you think it does. And the FDA has decided it’s time—maybe—to legally define the term, and enforce rules about when food manufacturers can use the word. I agree that words have meanings, and that consumers ought to be able to know what they’re buying. But “Natural” is a slippery term, and more regulations about its use might not clarify much of anything.

Natural, one would think, means “from nature” or “occurring in nature.” But plenty of things you might think of as “unnatural” are very much from nature. Like ionizing radiation, which you’re being bathed in right now (from cosmic rays from above, and radioactive elements from below. Hello, radon!) Or toxins like those made by pufferfish or chrysanthemums (the active ingredient in many lice preparations). Living organisms like vegetables are loaded with toxic compounds including pesticides that are just as harmful as anything man-made.

Likewise, some things you might think of as “natural” are not, in fact, from nature at all. Homeopathy is touted as “natural”, when it in fact relies on a completely magical, imaginary mechanism of action that can’t be observed and isn’t in any way a part of the natural world. Diluting a chemical until it doesn’t exist any more doesn’t make it magically more powerful. Homeopathy is “supernatural”, meaning that it relies on magic, not nature.

The FDA has known that it would be difficult to pin down what’s meant by “natural”, and had previously said it has no interest in formally defining the term. Their current policy is that it’s OK to use the word on foods that don’t have any added color, synthetic substances, or synthetic flavors. Their policy doesn’t consider how a product is made—so synthetic pesticides are OK, as is irradiation, as are genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Currently, these are all fair to label as “natural”.

Several citizen’s groups have petitioned the FDA to define “natural”, tightening up their policy to exclude more things. The FDA is now soliciting comments from the public on exactly how to do that, and based on the comments I’m reading this isn’t going to be easy. Here are the current top two comments:

“Natural should mean nothing in it but food grown without chemicals…”

That makes no sense. Water is a chemical, manure is loaded with chemicals, and, well, everything is a chemical. I think what this person meant was food grown without pesticides or fertilizers—but, again, plenty of those are natural too, and current regulations for organic farmers include long lists of scary, chemically-sounding compounds that they’re allowed to use because they’re “natural.” Food can’t be grown without chemicals, and life can’t occur without chemicals, and what the chemical names are (or how “scary” they look) have nothing to do with whether they’ll hurt you or not, or now “natural” they might be.

Natural should be an ingredient that has not been boiled, microwaved, or in anyway (sic) tampered by chemical process.”

Cooking food (boiling, baking, using a George Foreman Grill) is a chemical process—you add heat to facilitate chemical reactions. That liberates more-accessible energy, and often makes food tasty. Humans have been cooking food, in nature, for thousands of years. Does it make any sense that a food is only natural until you cook it, or that cooking makes something un-natural? Really?

The FDA, I’m sure, would like to come up with a definition that’s clear and enforceable, but in common usage the word “natural” isn’t so easily pinned down. It’s reminiscent of the supreme court’s 1964 attempt to define pornography: “I can’t say what natural is, but I know it when I see it”. Meanwhile, food-scare opportunists are making a fortune selling a fear of “un-natural” foods.

Until we come up with a way to define the word “Natural” in a way that we can all understand, I suggest you ignore it on food labels. It doesn’t mean anything—not anything more than any other marketing words, like “fresh” or “delicious”. Buy a variety of foods that your family enjoys eating, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, and cook and eat together as a family. Forget the fear, and ignore the labels.


This blog was originally posted on The Pediatric Insider.

© 2015 Roy Benaroch, MD