What Does "Natural" on Food Labels Mean?

Short Answer: Not as Much as You Think

Cauliflower at Market
Cauliflower at Market. Photo © Molly Watson

The term "natural" gets thrown around a lot these days. From food product labels to chef chatter, there seems to be a belief that anything "natural" is "good." One study found the majority of consumers though that "natural" had more meaning than "organic."

To be clear: that simply isn't true.

So What Does "Natural" Mean?

Legally, food labeled "natural" does not contain any artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives.

Sounds good. Or does it?

The important element there is the word "artificial." It is not, as a consumer might assume, the same as "processed." It simple means that the flavor does not fit the following definition of a "natural" flavor:

"A natural flavor is 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."

So, if a flavor is made from any of the above ingredients, it is "natural," no matter how highly changed and manipulated it is, including processed proteins that you may or may not consider desirable.

What About "Natural" On Meat Labels?

It's the same as above, with the added element that the meat or poultry so labeled has only been "minimally processed." It has nothing to do with being organic or free-range.

In short, it means that it's meat.

To repeat: an "all-natural" stamp on a meat label only means that you're buying meat.

It gets a tad more depressing from there.

Meat from animals treated with artificial hormones can (and is) labeled "natural," as is meat injected with saline solution. Sure, saline (salt water) adds flavor, but it also adds considerable weight to a product sold by the pound. 

And, as long as anything in that saline solution meets the definition of a "natural flavor" above, the meat can still be labeled "all natural," which gets us a fair piece away from the idea that it's just meat one is buying. Sugar, for example, can be added to the solution along with salt, to say nothing of flavors derived from other foods.

So highly processed chicken nuggets with an unpronounceable ingredient list can, legally, be labelled as "containing all-natural chicken" or as having been "made with natural chicken."

For more about meat labeling, see What Do Meat Labels Mean?

Is It Worth Looking for "Natural" On Food Labels?

In short, the "natural" label on food means something and there are guidelines about which foods can be labelled "natural," but they aren't very stringent. For people interested in pure foods and minimally processed or unprocessed foods, the "natural" label probably won't tell you what you want to know.