What Is “Natural”?

What does "natural" mean? What Is “Natural”?

You’ve probably faced the dilemma when choosing between two similar products in the grocery store – but one is labeled as “natural” and the other isn’t. If you’ve ever gone with the “natural” product, you’re not alone. Our 2021 Food and Health Survey found that one-third – or 33% of Americans regularly buy foods and beverages because they are advertised as “natural” on the label, regardless of when shopping in-person or online. Additionally, this survey found that most Americans view a product that is labeled “all natural” as healthier than a product that is not, even if they have the same Nutrition Facts label.

To say the least, “natural” labels make an impression. But does “natural” really mean what we think it means? Let’s dive deeper.

What Does “Natural” Mean on a Food Label?

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have a formal definition for “natural” as a food labeling term.

However, they do have policy about its use in food labeling. Ultimately, the FDA considers “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been put into a food that wouldn’t be expected to be there. It is worth noting that this FDA policy on “natural” only covers part of the picture; it is not meant to address food production, processing or manufacturing methods. Nor is it indicative of a food’s nutritional or health benefit.

Even with their policy, the FDA acknowledges that “natural” has come to mean a variety of things to different consumers. In 2016 the FDA requested public comments for whether they should define “natural,” how to do so and how the agency should determine its appropriate usage on food labels. However, no decision has been publicly announced by the FDA since that time.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat, poultry and egg products – but not shell eggs, considers a natural meat and poultry product as “containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” Labels that use the term “natural” must include a brief explanation of its meaning, such as “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed.”

How is “Natural” Different from Organic?

Although there is no standardized definition for the term “natural,” the FDA views it as referring to a product’s ingredients. When the term “organic” appears on food labels, the USDA views it as describing agricultural production practices, including methods that maintain soil health and conserve biodiversity. There is no certification for the term “natural” but there is for “organic.” Products that have the “organic” label must meet criteria established and overseen by the USDA.

Another distinction to make between these terms is their different types of labels. You’ve likely seen “natural” on certain products and “all natural” on others – is there a difference? In short, no. Just like for “natural,” there is no definition for “all natural” and the two are often used interchangeably. However, this is not the case when it comes to the four ways organic foods can be labeled – “organic,” “100% organic,” “made with organic…” and specific organic ingredient listings – because each one has its own definition and specific labeling rules.

Does a “Natural” Product Mean It’s a Better Choice?

Naturally – pun intended, we all want to put the best food on our plates. But choosing more nutritious foods can be difficult and vague labeling terms such as “natural” don’t make it any easier. So, the next time you’re grocery shopping and come across a food labeled as “natural,” remember that there is no formal definition for the term and head to the Nutrition Facts label for details about its healthfulness. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s healthier.

Interested in learning more about other topics like this? Check out our articles on natural and artificial flavors, food colors, GMOs and clean eating.

This article was written by Marisa Paipongna, with contributions from Kris Sollid, RD.