In U.S. Food Labeling, Natural Means (Almost) Nothing


First, the good news: Consumers’ demand for organic food is getting recognized by food companies! Chipotle has removed GMOs from its food, so even fast food can be real food. Juice bars abound. Regular supermarkets often have organic produce racks and aisles dedicated to healthier food. That’s awesome! It makes life so much easier.

Now the bad news: More food than ever before sounds healthy and great for you, but isn’t. It’s a war of labeling.

One of the words most often used to make a food sound healthy is “natural.” Food packaging also may use varieties like, “All Natural.”

The truth is, natural means (almost) nothing in the U.S.

The Definition of ‘Natural’ in Food Labeling

To be exact, there is a definition for “Natural,” at least for U.S. meat and poultry products. The USDA states that “Natural” means: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as ‘no artificial ingredients; minimally processed’).”

This definition applies only to meat and poultry. It also says nothing about antibiotics, GMO feed (which is not considered an artificial ingredient), or hormones.

Antibiotics, Hormones and Free Range?

So what really means “no antibiotics”? The answer is, “No antibiotics.” Here’s the USDA on that: “The terms ‘no antibiotics added’ may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”

Similarly, “no hormones” means no hormones (but only for beef, since hormones are prohibited in pork and chicken). And “free range”? All that means is that the animal had access to the outside. It doesn’t necessarily mean happy cows wandering around a pasture.

“Natural” doesn’t mean any of these things. To cut through the jargon, essentially, natural means very little.

It’s Not Just Meat and Poultry

The FDA, too, tap-dances around the issue: “….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.”

So, all “natural” seems to mean is a lack of artificial colors and flavors — and I’m not sure who enforces that stricture. An animal product labeled “natural” can be treated routinely with antibiotics and hormones, caged indoors for most of its life, and given genetically modified feed. A processed food product can contain byproducts from these animals or genetically modified ingredients that were originally sprayed with dangerous pesticides.

That doesn’t sound very natural, does it?

Organic for the Win: Definitions, Standards, Inspections

What does mean something?


Organic means:

  • A lack of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
  • Animals raised in more humane conditions and often allowed to graze
  • Animals that ate 100% organic feed (which is not genetically modified)
  • No antibiotics or hormones
  • Documented processes and annual inspections to confirm compliance (actual enforcement!)

More detail is available from the USDA. Notably, they state that products labeled as “made with organic” ingredients can contain about 30% non-organic ingredients — but can’t carry the USDA organic seal. So the USDA organic seal is really the quality marker that means a product is truly organic. (For fruits and vegetables, look for a “9” in front of the four-digit product ID number on the sticker.)

(Note: There’s a controversy about whether sick animals should be permitted to receive antibiotics. I believe they should be permitted to receive them, although under current organic guidelines, they are not. But I do NOT believe routine antibiotic use should be permitted, in either conventional or organic animals. I do buy organic animal products, because I believe it’s the lesser of two evils.)

So keep an eye out when shopping, and remember that “natural” food can be pretty far from the idyllic image that word evokes.

Go organic!


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