(Updated 12/14/16: fixed broken links)
The word “natural” takes a lot of abuse in the food business. It’s slapped on just about any product to as a lure to buyers, and yet, it doesn’t have much meaning, except in narrow circumstances. Recently, I ran across a somewhat unconventional usage on the “Pita Bite Crackers” from Trader Joe’s. These crackers — which, “at long last” bring pita to the realm of crackers — are “Naturally Baked with Sea Salt.”
Has Trader Joe’s installed a bakery inside of a volcano, where they can use the Earth’s heat to bake their crackers? Or are they innovating with solar ovens that can generate the necessary heat? If not, I don’t know what “naturally baked” could mean, as the process of baking is pretty darn unnatural, involving all sorts of unnatural technologies like extracted and processed fossil fuels, metalworking, and so on. Perhaps the package designers were “naturally baked” when they made that choice of words, or — far more likely — their package designers sprinkle the word around like sea salt.
In the United States, the actual meaning of the word depends on whether the food is regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A detailed examination of what the FDA and UDSA regulate might require a few posts, but here’s a thumbnail sketch: in general, the USDA regulates raw meats and eggs, the FDA regulates everything else.
First, let’s look at the FDA. On the FDA website, as one of the “FDA Basics” questions, you’ll find one about the word “natural”:
What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?
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.
In short: “whatever.”
USDA has it’s own view of natural, and it’s also not very meaningful. In its guide on meat and dairy labels, the Environmental Working Group says this:
The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Processing must not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a specific explanation such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.” All fresh meat qualifies as natural. This term does not include any requirements that animals be raised in sufficient open space or that it has no added hormones or antibiotic; it is not the same as organic. The term can mislead consumers to think that the product is healthier and more humane than it is.
Like FDA, USDA gives the word a lot of latitude, and allow some decidedly unnatural practices, such as dosing animals with hormones*, spiking their feed with antibiotics as a “growth enhancer,” or including transgenic corn and soybeans in the feed. Consumer Reports’ GreenerChoices website has a similar take, concluding that the label is not meaningful.
Given the weak regulations and years of degradation of the word’s meaning, the food industry should completely stop using the word, recommends Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association and author of Appetite for Profit. In an article at the New Hope Network called “Is It Time to Define ‘Natural’?”, she takes a look at some recent misuses of natural, noting that lawsuits over labeling GMO-containing products as natural are starting to get the industry’s attention.
I more or less ignore the word natural when shopping, opting instead to read ingredient labels and rely on labels that have some credible regulation behind them, like certified organic. But it’s still fun to look for marketers that push the boundaries of reason, like the “naturally baked” label from Trader Joe’s.
* Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking article “Power Steer” in the March 31, 2002 New York Times Magazine included his deliberations about whether he should give his cow a hormone injection. “Power Steer” is available at michaelpollan.com, and probably covered in The Omnivore’s Dilemma too.