What’s the Meaning of All Natural?

Articles
July 01, 2010

What’s the Meaning of All Natural?

We’ve all seen products labeled ‘natural’ as well as those that contain ‘artificial flavors’ or ‘natural flavors,’ but have you ever wondered what exactly these claims mean? Is it really natural? What is the difference?

We’ve all seen products labeled ‘natural’ as well as those that contain ‘artificial flavors’ or ‘natural flavors,’ but have you ever wondered what exactly these claims mean? Is it really natural? What is the difference?

Well, the definition of ‘natural flavor’ under the Code of Federal Regulations 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” (21CFR101.22). Any other added flavor therefore is artificial. (For the record, any monosodium glutamate, or MSG, used to flavor food must be declared on the label as such).

Both artificial and natural flavors are made by ‘flavorists’ in a laboratory by blending either ‘natural’ chemicals or synthetic chemicals to create flavorings. Gary Reineccius, a professor in the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota says “The distinction in flavorings--natural versus artificial--comes from the source of these identical chemicals and may be likened to saying that an apple sold in a gas station is artificial and one sold from a fruit stand is natural.” He also says, “Artificial flavorings are simpler in composition and potentially safer because only safety-tested components are utilized. Another difference between natural and artificial flavorings is cost. The search for ‘natural’ sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical…. Furthermore, the process is costly. This pure natural chemical is identical to the version made in an organic chemist’s laboratory, yet it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. Consumers pay a lot for natural flavorings. But these are in fact no better in quality, nor are they safer, than their cost-effective artificial counterparts.”

So what about products that are labeled ‘all natural’ what does that actually mean? Is that similar to organic? No, the term ‘organic’ is not synonymous with ‘natural.’ The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, defines ‘natural’ as, “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product).” Most foods labeled natural are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and heath codes.

So, it seems that ‘natural’ might not be so natural after all and there are still many grey areas for consumers and producers alike. As consumers we need to be more aware of what ingredients go into our foods, read labels and make sure they are recognizable as real foodstuff. Don't be seduced by ‘natural’ claims on packaging. It’s also time we take more initiative to encourage the government’s responsibility to regulate these ingredients and disclose the information to the public.