Science_Spot recently made the decision to go green in her household and blog about her green living experiment along the way.
This week she talks about what the words "natural" and "all-natural" on food packaging labels really mean. As it turns out, these terms can be quite misleading...
Sometimes "natural" is easy to spot. The can of peas I have here doesn't say "all natural" on the label. But a look at the ingredients list shows me they are: peas, water, salt. In fact, I have been able to easily find all natural products in many categories, including cereal, dairy products, frozen meals, canned/frozen produce, condiments, and snacks.
Sometimes a product's label makes a claim of "all natural" but then lists some pretty complicated ingredients, such as sodium lauryl sulfate or methylisothiazolinone. The manufacturer then notes in the ingredient list that the chemical is derived from a plant, which is how they figured it was natural. I don't understand how the manufacturer can claim a chemical is natural just because they got that chemical from a plant. Corn is natural, high fructose corn syrup is not. Cocoa, sugar cane, and peanuts are natural; unfortunately, peanut butter cups are not.
Since there is no universal definition of "all natural", companies have taken to providing their own, often liberal, definition. They base their definitions loosely on the FDA's guidance that natural ingredients are "extracted directly from plants or animals as apposed to being produced synthetically." This is a common practice in the USA, since there is no legal definition covering the use of the term "natural," which is really unfortunate. Many different groups have made attempts at providing a universal definition, but so far nothing has become widely accepted and used. Without governmental backing, one may never be.
When I visited my local natural goods store, I was prepared for the possibility of drastically higher prices, but I wasn't prepared for the many synthetic ingredients I found on the labels. I found products using their "loose definition of natural", which really surprised me. My transition to natural products had reached a point where I need to decide for myself what "all natural" means. What percentage of naturalness is acceptable to me? This is an easy question to answer but it is not going to be easy to live by.
I expect my products to be as natural as possible. I will choose real sugar over a sugar substitute or high fructose corn syrup, when possible. I will choose color-free over anything with an FD&C color in it. I will not be duped by chemicals derived from plants being labeled as "all natural". I will be an educated consumer!
This website, the Natural Ingredient Resource Center is helping me get started on that. I really like their definitions on the left side of the page—they are written so anyone can understand, and are the most restrictive definitions I have seen. Many groups such as the Natural Products Association give certifications to natural products, but they allow a wide variety of ingredients to be used, including those "derived from natural sources"—a fancy way of saying chemicals that were synthesized from a natural starting ingredient. There list has many ingredients that rely on the FDA's GRAS notation and (lack of) safety data. Because many groups are using this list as their guide, chemicals are still being used under the misnomer "natural". It's a good thing I am reading the label of everything I want to buy, and educating myself in the process.
Hopefully, you will find it helpful as well.