Food Biz

What Does "Natural" Mean—and What Should It Mean?

November 17, 2015

If, on a trip to the grocery store, you have been flummoxed by the sheer number of options—organic! free-range! low-sodium! natural!—go ahead and raise your hand. (You may not be able to see all of our hands raised, but you're not alone.)

Standing in front of the refrigerated case of eggs, for example—where the size and price of the eggs themselves are likely no longer the main consideration in your decision-making process—can be something of a dizzying experience.

Photo by James Ransom

While some of the terms that pop up on the labels we see at the grocery store, like "organic," are strictly defined, others, like "natural," are more abstract. In fact, the Federal Drug Administration has only a very loose, loophole-happy working definition for "natural":

The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

Photo by James Ransom

Until now! The FDA is asking for the public to give their input as to what they want in a "natural" label. So we asked some of the Food52 team what they think "natural" means—and what it should mean.

  • Riddley said that even though she has learned that "natural" is mostly an interpretive label, she's more inclined to buy a product labeled “natural” or “all natural” over one that’s not: "It’s my inner hippie/environmental person."
  • For Amanda S., "natural" is a middle ground between "conventional" products and "organic" ones—"natural" eggs are "not as expensive as the $7 or $8 free-range or organic eggs, but a little less scary and guilt-inducing than the everyday hormonally-charged ones." She also said that "more often than not, the world 'natural' just feels like it means nothing, a gimmick that I don't buy into. Natural crackers? Natural beer? Natural popcorn? It is so unspecific as to be both unhelpful and unconvincing."
  • Lindsay-Jean assumes that "natural" "means there aren't artificial flavors or added colors or strange synthetic ingredients—though as Riddley alluded to, that isn't necessarily true... I, too, am more inclined to buy them. But at the same time I'm a little skeptical, and when I see it I wonder: Is there a better label or certification that I should be looking for with this type of product?"
  • Even though Sarah knows that "natural" is largely unregulated, "I still find myself inclined to buy—or consider buying—the 'natural' products (it's enough to make me second-guess my decision, but usually not enough to sway that decision one way or the other). If I'm wondering whether food is natural in terms of whole ingredients that are not artificial, I'll read the ingredient list."
  • And Ali pointed us to a New York Times article by Michael Pollan, "Why 'Natural' Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore," that she found eye-opening.

The FDA wants our input! What does "natural" mean to you? How do you think it should be defined? What would you want in a "natural" food? Tell us in the comments below—and then leave a comment at the bottom of this FDA page.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Suzanne Mann
    Suzanne Mann
  • Bec
  • Nancy
  • Brenda Blackston
    Brenda Blackston
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Suzanne M. November 18, 2015
I so agree with you all and Brenda, I made my comment because I too have an autoimmune disease and I try to watch for bad stuff in my food. We grow some. This is complicated by our age and health now I depend more and more on prepared foods from the grocery.
I do hope all you extremely articulated ladies go to the FDA page highlighted above and have a say as well.
Brenda B. November 21, 2015
I think we all need to form more groups or join existing groups who are going to go after Congress. The FDA won't move without them. Groups can possibly make change, but individuals usually can not. You have to fight the big business lobbyists on that area too. Money makes things happen and they have lots and lots of it. Other countries won't tolerate the things that we just accept. Suzanne Mann - knowing you have the auto-immune issues too, you realize just how important labeling is to those of us who suffer with them. This is my fourth. All of these processed and genetically modified foods are hurting our health. I really worry about my grandchildren even more.
Bec November 18, 2015
I agree, Nancy-that the word 'natural' does not mean it is 'healthy'. Good point.
Nancy November 18, 2015
"Natural" has received a halo effect when considered in opposition to man-made or commercial, as if those were negative things. But it has no inherent positive or healthful meaning. Remember, cyanide and arsenic are naturally occurring in food, plants, earth, water.
Bec November 18, 2015
Natural is misleading I think. When there is a packet of lollies in front of me, the label of the packet should not read '...natural...'. Lollies don't grow naturally. They are man made. The packet could read 'use of natural colouring' for example. What do you think?
Brenda B. November 18, 2015
I have a hard time with the labeling, and I have a real problem trusting. I will never forget a video I watched: committee meeting with a food company representative about "complete" labeling. The representative felt it was too much for the consumer to follow. The committee chair congressman agreed and said that people aren't smart enough to understand too much detail. Sigh!!! I have an auto-immune disorder that is escalated by eating the wrong things. I need to focus on non-GMO, organic, non-dairy, and low sugar, and gluten-free. It really limits me and hurts my budget, but what else can I do? I am questioning where natural really falls. I think labeling should be clearer. Natural just muddies the water. AND - who determines what it will really mean - I am having a hard time trusting big business. Greed is the name of their game. I would rather read a few more words: no preservatives, no dyes including no bugs, no fillers, no chemicals, no antibiotics, etc. I don't want to guess what they mean - one company might see it one way and another see it totally differently. I also want to know where it is grown or made - not just the distributor. That is another trick they use. ex. wild vs. farm-raised; farm-raised in China and then distributed in the US. It is so misleading and on top of that the product is - geez, I can only say nasty.
Suzanne M. November 17, 2015
If organic means no added chemicals,in sprays, fertilizers, dips, or food that the animal/product we eat has been subjected to then why have natural at all uless it is used along side of organic to designate a non geneticly altered product? Or add non genetically in with the organic and leave the confusing natural off entirely. Who ever heard of anything natural that has five to seven ingredients? I have seen things labled this way!