What Does The Word "Natural" Mean When It Comes To Food?

4 years ago

Have you heard about California’s Proposition 37 which would require the labeling of all genetically modified foods? What do you think about it? It’s at tricky one right?

I’m not in California and manyof you aren’t either. I therefore don’t want to go down the road of debating the actual proposition. What I would like to do is talk about one part of it and find out what you think.

Part of Proposition 37 seeks to regulate the use of the word natural. Let’s talk about the meaning of the word natural.

How many times do you stop to read the packaging info on a product and wonder about the meaning of the word natural? Or do you even wonder about it? When you see natural do you assume that the food is healthy and stop reading?

Not me. In fact, I ignore the word natural. It’s pretty much meaningless as far as I can tell.

Take natural flavors for instance. What are natural flavors? It turns out the definition is pretty complex and reading it does not clarify things for me. Here’s the definition from the Food and Drug Administration Department of Health and Human Services:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

(I’m not even going to look up the definition of Natural Color!)

We also see wholesome-seeming companies like Kashi coming under fire for their use of the word natural because some of their products contain genetically engineered soy. The kind of round-up ready crop we’re talking about here (not to mention the herbicide resistant super-weeds that are unintentionally created and seem to require the use of more and more lethal amounts and types of herbicides to control) scares the crap out of me. Natural is definitely not the word I would use to describe this ingredient.

I think you probably agree with me that neither of the above cases are intuitively natural. But how do we go about defining the word? As Anastasia Killian points out in Forbes, many would agree that roasted almonds are natural. Members of the raw food movement? Not so much.

I think it would be pretty hard to come up with a definition that we all agree on. But let’s try.

Today, let’s set aside all the complicated issues that Prop 37 brings up. Let’s ignore the fact that companies like Nestle and Coca Cola must label products as genetically engineered in China and the UK and many other countries but are not required to do so here in the US. Let’s brush off the crap that’s been scared out of us by terms like Round-Up ready, Super Weed and 2,4-D. And, let’s pretend that California is not facing a decision that will have implications for GMO labeling in the whole country.

Instead, let’s focus on this one thing: the meaning of the word natural.

What do you think natural means? Do you ignore the word natural when you see it? Do you think the use of the word natural should be regulated? If so, do you think we can come up with an agreed upon definition for such a subjective term?




Christine from Cook the Story

Where it's all about the story (except when it's about the food)

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