Investigating the “Natural” Label

By The Dirt To Dinner Team March 3, 2016 | 5 MIN READ

The Dirt:

When you see food labeled as “natural” do you know what it really means? Labeling food as “natural” is often more of a marketing ploy than anything else. Guess what, foods without the “natural” label can still be good for you…


Investigating the “Natural” Label


By The Dirt To Dinner Team March 3, 2016 | 5 MIN READ

The Dirt:

When you see food labeled as “natural” do you know what it really means? Labeling food as “natural” is often more of a marketing ploy than anything else. Guess what, foods without the “natural” label can still be good for you…

If you are unclear on what the word “natural” on your food label means, you are not alone.  We are not sure if anyone knows the true meaning of “natural”. There is a renewed consumer interest in eating only food grown from our hunting and gathering days. Is that realistic? Forget for a moment that the average life span of our Paleo cousins was about 33 years. Is your food really better if it is not made in the lab or a food ingredient facility? Is cane sugar more natural than high fructose corn syrup? Is “natural” food better for you? Consumers and even some food companies are left to their imagination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees that most food in the grocery aisle is not exactly like it was when it left the farm.  Their definition vaguely informs us of the following,

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, 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. **


**Note: The FDA is currently in the process of reviewing the “natural” label, and has extended the comment period until May 2016. Learn more here.

There seems to be a lot of room for interpretation. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines all natural meat as “minimally processed”.  The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) agrees with the FDA and the USDA by saying that any product labeled as “natural” cannot contain artificial ingredients or added color and the product can only be “minimally processed”, meaning “not fundamentally altered”.

, Investigating the “Natural” Label
Image Source: Nolan Ryan Beef.

Consumers want food without chemicals, synthetics, or ingredients that are considered bad for you, and “factory fear” is growing in popularity. As a result, companies are labeling their products as “natural” to distinguish their products as healthy. According to Mintel Marketing Research, the natural label market in the U.S. today is significant: 11 percent of all food sold in the grocery store.

In fact, because the word natural is so ambiguous, there have been teams of lawyers reviewing the products in your local grocery store, looking to see what is truly “natural”. Kraft was sued for false advertising over its “natural cheese” claim as the cheese had artificial coloring. General Mills, Trader Joe’s, PepsiCo, and Kashi have all settled liability suits and removed the 100% natural claim from their packaging. These class action lawsuits are trying to prove that companies are deceiving the consumer—when they might be just as confused.

So what is happening in response? Companies are now showing what is NOT in their box as a protection against lawsuits. Packaging labels such as “gluten-free”, “no High Fructose Corn Syrup”, and “GMO-free” infer that the products are healthier. But these claims can be deceptive, as there is nothing scientifically or medically wrong with GMO’s and High Fructose Corn Syrup and you only need to avoid gluten if you are celiac.

Just because some of your food is created in a lab doesn’t mean that it is filled with unhealthy ingredients. Take synthesized vitamins, for instance. Numerous studies have been done on each synthesized vitamin to make sure that the purpose of the chemically created vitamin is the same. For example, when we eat meat, we ingest Vitamin B12. B12 comes from the stomach bacteria in an animal. When B12 is created in a lab, the exact bacteria fermentation is simulated to create the identical B12 vitamin. No chemicals or dyes are made— it is created healthily. Vitamin C is made the same way, through biosynthesis, whether it is from a lab or a fruit. Fruits pull up calcium, phosphate, and nitrogen from the soil and make their vitamins. The lab just combines the same minerals and creates a synthetic vitamin. While they may not be considered “natural” they are not harmful to your body.

Natural flavorings are often looked to as an alternative. But some of them are not all that appealing. For instance, as an all-natural alternative to red color number 40, the coloring agent is crushed insects. Need lemon flavoring? It comes from grass. Or how about this one, the natural smell of raspberries could be from an unmentionable part of a beaver.

Confused about labels? Here’s what you should do.

The real questions to ask ourselves are is: Is my food healthy? Does it have lots of sugar? Where does the fat come from? Is this a one-time snack or an everyday snack? How many calories am I eating? Greek Yogurt sold with fruit is delicious, but watch out for the added 13 grams sugar— half of your daily allowance for added sugar. Pasteurized milk is not “natural” but it makes your milk safe to drink.


For example, let’s take a look at Jennie’s All Natural Coconut Macaroon cookies. Because it is a cookie, our instincts tell us that is isn’t healthy. But, when you look at the label, you find that these cookies are also Non-GMO, Wheat Free, Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Yeast Free, Sulfite Free, Soy Free, Lactose-Free and Trans Fat-Free. But does that make them GOOD for you? Not really. While they may be the lesser of all cookie evils, for just two cookies, they still have 32% of your daily saturated fat recommendation and 63% of your recommended added sugar for the day. Are those two cookies worth an additional 130 calories? Even though they are considered “natural” these cookies are certainly not a healthy snack.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to be mindful of the nutritional label versus the marketing labels.

There is no solution for inflammation comparable to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. And we are certainly not proponents of the “quick fix”, particularly if there is an underlying issue that is not being addressed. However, if you are typically fairly active and a healthy eater that has indulged and looking to get back on track there are some antidotes that may help fight inflammation. Cryotherapy and baby aspirin are believed to reduce swelling.“Cryotherapy takes advantage of the body’s natural tendency to vasoconstrict (vessels tighten) when exposed to cold. This is why we apply ice to a trauma, like a swollen ankle, after hurting it. When we apply cold, the vessels tighten, which limits swelling. This is a good counter to the body’s natural tendency to swell and heat up an area of injury.” (Dr. Bongiourno) Additionally, baby aspirin is often prescribed to help reduce pain and swelling. 

The Bottom Line:

Marketing labels distract you from what is really important. Even the Food and Drug Administration is having trouble identifying what classifies food as “natural.” The most important thing to do is read the nutritional label! Check the saturated fat, the calorie-to-protein ratio, and the sugar. Trust your gut, read the nutritional information, and don’t always trust the added marketing labels.