The Meaning of the Word Natural

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Finally, a return to My Opinion Mondays with today’s focus on the meaning of the word natural:

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 many of 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?


8 Responses to “The Meaning of the Word Natural”

  1. Fredro — September 20, 2019 @ 6:05 am (#)

    Nice post!

  2. Paula — October 22, 2012 @ 8:45 pm (#)

    Whenever I see a food item marked as *Natural* it sends off an alert in me and causes me to read the label. More times than not…the claim Natural is in my opinion a false one.

    I do think that there should be some form of regulation, as we have for those who want to claim that their product is truly organic.

    On the other hand, as consumers we have the responsibility to ourselves to educate ourselves about the food products we are purchasing and to always shop with a *buyer beware* attitude.

    • Christine Pittman — October 25, 2012 @ 1:32 pm (#)

      I know exactly what you mean. The word natural does the same thing top me – makes me more suspicious! And I think you’re right about a balance between legislation and personal responsibility. Where do we draw the line? I agree that the government cannot possibly legislate every word. How awful that would be! On the other hand, I know that I’m someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these issues and researching them for the health of my family. Not everyone has the luxury of that time and interest and ability. How do we make it easier for them?

  3. Courtney — October 22, 2012 @ 7:07 pm (#)

    This is a great post! This is absolutely something that most of us misinterpret every day. The term “natural” no matter what it is describing has become a major marketing tool, yet most people are probably not getting what we bargained for with those products.

    I can’t even think how I would define the term “natural” because it has become such a loaded word. There’s definitely no easy answer. But, I absolutely do believe the term should be regulated, just as the “organic” label is, to provide some standardization.

    • Christine Pittman — October 25, 2012 @ 1:34 pm (#)

      Courtney, Great points! I’m so interested to see what will happen with California’s Prop 37 because the word natural is at issue. If the prop goes through it could have some implications for the rest of the country.

  4. Katerina — October 22, 2012 @ 12:23 pm (#)

    You are so right! Natural has a completely different meaning for marketers and companies from the one we as consumers think of the word and the meaning it conveys! I am very suspicious when it comes to natural in food!

    • Christine Pittman — October 25, 2012 @ 1:37 pm (#)

      I wonder if the companies even have a meaning that they’re thinkingh of. I fear that the meaning is “Edible and made of ingredients that may be o.k. for you to eat.”


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