Isn’t FOOD Already “Natural?!”

by Brooke on August 23, 2011

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Guest Post By:  Whitney Fontaine

As a food scientist, one of the trickiest things I do is researching and interpreting the law. Have you ever looked at the law – I mean, really read it? Trust me, it’s confusing, even if you know what each word means.

Well, food law is no different. Now, many laws around food are actually quite good, with clear definitions. Did you know that ice cream can only contain so much air, butter can only contain so much water, and reduced fat actually has a minimum required reduction? So if all of these seemingly tiny details have stringent requirements, then the term ‘NATURAL’ must be very strict too, right?

Nope. Not even close.

This is where the title of this post comes in… Isn’t food – the stuff we PUT INTO OUR BODIES – already natural? As in, how on earth would syrup made from corn, be anything but natural?

Just a bit of background… The FDA and USDA regulate our food supply. Most of what you eat is regulated by the FDA. To simplify, we will focus our efforts to understanding their law for the time being.

So…what is ‘Natural’? Unfortunately, ‘Natural’ is still a term without written guidelines within the law. However, there are policies issued by each governing body that are rather gray.

FDA’s policy states that, “a claim of ‘natural’ is permitted if the food does not contain an added color, synthetic substance or flavor, or anything artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected in food.”

Clear. As. Mud.

So, the reason this can be tricky is because there are still conversations around certain things being artificially derived. For example – citric acid is a naturally occurring substance in many foods, such as lemons and tomatoes. However, the citric acid that is used in food products is created through a fermentation process. Therefore, some have deemed it as not natural. Most people disagree with this logic, but it is a classical example of interpretation being everything.

Some people elaborate on the term, using phrases such as “naturally occurring” or “naturally sourced,” when discussing food ingredients. Not a bad idea for some things. High Fructose Corn Syrup doesn’t occur in nature, but it is created from a substance that does – corn. So is it natural? I have an opinion about that, but my goal is to teach, not start a controversy about the natural status of the super-sticky-sweet-stuff. 

So what do you, the consumer, do with this information? Because, now that you know that, A) There isn’t a solid definition, and B) The policy that exists is wide open to interpretation, you may be feeling a little bit concerned that your favorite ‘natural’ brand thinks differently than you do. While I can’t tell you that there is a one-stop-shop for items that meet your personal criteria, I have a few suggestions for you.

First, read the labels. I am pretty sure that no recipe you have ever made has asked you to add sodium benzoate. This is not to say that an ingredient that is not a pantry staple is un-natural, but it’s a good start. If you don’t know what the ingredient is, look it up. What is it, where does it come from, why is it used in this food?

Second, where the law stops, some retailers start. In the food industry, there is a term that is sometimes used to get everyone on the same page, talking the same language. “Whole Foods Compliant.” Whole Foods is a company with a chain of retail grocery stores specializing in the natural and organic food niche. They maintain a good reputation in the industry and they are stringent. I use this when a customer asks me to make a sauce that is natural. It helps us start a conversation about what should, or should not be, included in the formulation of their product. Nothing is perfect – even Whole Foods breaks some of there own rules, but they have maintained a publicly available list of ingredients that they deem “unacceptable for use in food.” The list isn’t just put together nilly willy though. They have people on staff that research and study each ingredient and compare that to their guidelines, which are much more defined than anything written in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Third, as you learn more, keep a mental list of the ingredients that don’t fit your personal idea about what is or is not natural. This is so much easier than trying to evaluate each individual product in a grocery. Before long, you will be able to quickly determine if something is right for your family just by looking at what is in it.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Cameo August 23, 2011 at 11:27 am

Very interesting post! I had no idea that Whole Foods had such a strict set of guidelines. I sort of assumed that they were a purveyor of many things that are “natural” and organic, but that they sort of banked off the whole “health halo” concept. That is good to know! Makes me feel better about spending so much money there!


Brooke August 24, 2011 at 2:13 am

Hi Cameo, Thanks for leaving a comment! I am glad you liked the post :)


Dagny August 24, 2011 at 11:12 pm

What IS “healthy” food?? I read this post on the same day I came across a blog post by a HAES proponent who insists it’s inappropriately judgmental to define ANY food as “healthy” as that would inappropriately judge people’s food choices. For example, we can’t define an apple as “healthier” than a candy bar because that would impose a moral judgment against the person who chooses the candy bar over the apple. Yeah, um… OK. I couldn’t make this up, I swear.

Despite the ambiguity we encounter in today’s processed food products, I think we CAN do a pretty good job of objectively identifying better food choices. Now let me go steam something dark green for dinner….


Brooke August 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Haha! Dagny that post cracks me up! I normally don’t use the terms “good” or “bad” with clients, but there is no denying that there are foods that are healthier than others.


Lauren Slayton August 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Great post, I didn’t know completely about the whole foods standards. When it comes to natural, my advice to clients is to ignore it and go (as you said too) to the ingredient list. I posted about salad dressing today, not “natural” or whole foods. Blech. Foods should be natural the crap sold in stores isn’t really food.


Brooke August 29, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Thanks Lauren! I saw that post today. It is a good idea and I really enjoy making my own too!


EA-The Spicy RD August 29, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I agree-great post, and very good explanation of what is(not) “natural”. I too was unfamiliar with the Whole Foods standards. Although I can’t honestly say I avoid 100 % of “non-natural” ingredients/foods, I do come pretty close. I read labels and teach my clients to do the same, and avoid buy foods with additives I don’t put in to my food made at home.


Brooke August 29, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Hi Spicy RD,

Thanks for posting a comment! I agree with you and don’t fully support their entire “non-natural” list, but it is nice to know about it in case a client asks.


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