What is "Natural"?

The term "natural" can be found all over the marketplace these days but what does the word really mean?
What is Natural ?

What does "natural" mean?
Natural food was broadly defined in the 1970s by the Federal Trade Commission (the federal agency responsible for truth in advertising) as any food that did not include synthetic or artificial ingredients and could not be more than minimally processed. As a result, the term is used rather loosely throughout the food industry with companies given a lot of freedom to apply the word "natural" to their food products.

There are, however, two minor exceptions where some regulations are in place. The first is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) regulation of the term "natural" when describing flavors. The second falls under the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and states that the term "natural" can only be applied to meat and poultry products that are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added colors.

What does "natural" NOT mean?
While it is a common misconception, the term "natural" is NOT synonymous with the term "healthful." For example, salt, table sugar and "natural potato chips" are "natural," but eating any of them in large amounts is not healthy. On the other hand, there are many "unnatural" food processing techniques and ingredients used to create frozen fruits and vegetables or pasteurized milk that are considered healthful.

In addition, "natural" should not be confused with "organic." Organic refers to the way farmers grow, handle and process foods. In contrast to "natural" foods, organic foods must follow stringent regulations and procedures.

When it comes to weight management, it's important to understand that, on a calorie-for-calorie basis, "natural" foods are no different than their "unnatural" counterparts. In other words, those "natural" potato chips have the same number of calories per serving as the processed ones.

Bottom Line: The term "natural" is a marketing (not scientific) term used routinely in the food industry. To evaluate the healthfulness and caloric content of a food, it's best to read the nutrition information on the package.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated December 17, 2011.


Check out our Science Library or read more about Science and Weight Watchers.