Is 'Natural' the Most Meaningless Word on Your Food Labels?

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A collection of the latest articles on "natural" food, which many people wrongly perceive to be equivalent to organic or healthy food.

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FoodNavigator.com has issued a collection of its recent articles on "natural" and processing. At issue is the meaning of "natural," which many people perceive as equivalent to organic or healthy. As I've said before, it isn't.

Natural has no regulatory meaning. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) merely says (note obfuscating double negatives):

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

One thing is clear: "natural" sells food products.

Selling processed foods in a whole food world? Authenticity is key: Consumers increasingly are choosing whole and unprocessed foods -- so is it the end of the line for processed food manufacturers? Not if they move with the times, say ingredient suppliers.

Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does 'clean' really mean? Attempts to link clean-labeling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that research now shows shoppers equate 'healthy' with 'natural' or 'minimally processed' foods.

'Natural': The most meaningless word on your food label? Consumers, the marketers all tell us, want foods that are 'wholesome,' 'authentic,' and above all 'natural,' although few of them can articulate what this means.

'Processed' foods are often high in sodium -- but what's a processed food? About 75 percent of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. It's a regularly cited figure -- but what exactly is a 'processed' food? Consumers might be surprised.

Processing is a dirty word -- but we'll need more of it to feed the world: Processing has become a dirty word, but we are going to need more processing, not less, in order to feed a growing population, according to professor and head of food science at Penn State University John Floros.

Image: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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