Navigating the Grocery Store Aisle

USDA, responsible for regulating labels on meat and poultry, says that beef and chicken can use the word “natural” only if they have no artificial colors and were not fundamentally altered during processing. Eggs are always natural, according to the USDA. The FDA regulates all other foods. The USDA (2020) policy guide states that the term “natural” may apply to labeling for meat and poultry products, provided that the applicant for such labeling demonstrates that a) the product does not contain any artificial or synthetic ingredient and b) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. Minimal processing may include the following:

traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or make it safe for human consumption

smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, or fermenting

physical processes that do not fundamentally separate a whole intact food into parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumin and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices.

The USDA does not define foods labeled “all - natural” as any different than those labeled “natural” (USDA, 2020). Despite the USDA policy, there is no certification or regulatory process.

The FDA considers the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives, regardless of source) is included in or added to food that is not typically expected in that food (U.S. FDA, 2018). However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as using pesticides, nor address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as pas teurization or irradiation. The FDA did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefits. The FDA also has no certification or regulatory process. In 2015, the FDA opened a request for comments on the use of the term “natural,” including for foods that are genetically engineered or contain ingredients through the use of genetic engineering (U.S. FDA, 2018). This resulted from three citizen petitions asking that the FDA better define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one citizen petition asking to prohibit the term on food labels. In addition, some federal courts requested administrative determinations from the FDA regarding whether food products containing ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup could be labeled “natural.” The public comment period closed in 2016; the FDA has yet to decide.

Here is what is not included in the definition of “natural:” local, organic, or higher nutrients:

Natural foods can be GMO and do not have to be organic.

Natural foods can be grown with pesticides, and meat can be raised with antibiotics and hormones.

“Natural” does not mean non -toxic (Chambers et al., 2019; Houck, 2019).

Food manufacturers often add “natural” labels to foods to increase their marketability to consumers, which can be done easily (Houck, 2019). A 2016 survey released by Consumer Reports showed that 73% of shoppers sought food labeled “natural” when they made food purchasing decisions. These findings came after a 2015 Consumer Reports survey that showed that almost two-thirds of shoppers

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