What is “Natural Food”, really?

natural-foodHave you notice the growth of beautifully packaged gourmet-food products labelled “Natural ingredients”, “All Natural”, “Made with Natural ingredients”… ?

Have you tried to find a REAL definition of what NATURAL actually means, according to some official standard – USDA for example?

While I am carefully doing some research on the complexity of food production regulations, in order to serve my business venture of crafting the most healthy, tasty and genuine food product I possibly can, I am amazed to find out that there is NO real definition for Natural in the United States food regulation standard.

According to Wikipedia: “In the United States, neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have rules for “natural.” The FDA explicitly discourages the food industry from using the term. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits labeling that is false or misleading, but does not give any specifics. (…) Because there is no legal meaning for natural foods, food manufacturers can include ingredients that may not be considered natural by some consumers. (…)Although there is no legal U.S. definition for natural foods, there are numerous unofficial or informal definitions, none of which is applied uniformly to foods labeled “natural”.”

Yes, I can make the reasonable choices myself: luckily, I was raised in an environment with access to farms, cooking from scratch, education about nutrition etc. But what about those who didn’t have my chance, and don’t have the background knowledge to build that common sense? And also, what about those industries who are leveraging the opportunity of labeling their food products with trendy features – benefiting from the blur of the definition.

Here are some disturbing facts:

According to Euromonitor International, in its March 2012 “GREEN BUYING BEHAVIOUR: GLOBAL ONLINE SURVEY STRATEGIC ANALYSIS” I learnt the following:

USDAOrganicUS respondents made a strong association between “natural” and “organic” products, with 46% believing that “natural” means organic and 65% believing that “organic” means natural.

1/ So 46% of us think that a piece of food labeled natural  respond to the same criteria as organic – a product that is not genetically modified, nor grown with pesticides / hormones … Well I am sorry to report that it isn’t true. Simple fact check: compare the organic VS normal price of the same raw piece of meat at the butcher shop. Yes, both of these choices are NATURAL, because there has been no transformational process yet, but as much as the organic piece (which is at least 20% more expensive) is raised without any hormones / antibiotics / you name it;  you have a serious lack of information regarding how the other piece of meat was raised so far.

2/ Then, 65% of us believed that food labeled organics are natural. Well technically, since there is no real definition for natural, what do I know? Here is what my common sense tells me: it can be grown using no chemicals, GMO… but when it comes to assembling the final food product, it sometimes goes through unorthodox processes, or using not-so-edible ingredients, that can still be organic. Example: Crackers! They may contain the organic flour, oils, yeasts  extract, starch… but the point is what do we know about the process to transform the raw ingredients (wheat, sunflower) into the flour, oil. It might surprise you that through some chemical processes, the original molecule of the natural ingredient  changes form. One may wonder if such new form is suitable to its consumer’s health.

Hydroformylation-soyOil extraction process example (from Wikipedia)

Methods of extraction
Sunflower oil can be extracted using chemical solvents such as hexane, or squeezed directly from sunflower seeds by crushing them in an expeller press.[22] Cold pressing sunflower oil using an expeller press under low-temperature conditions is a preferred method for those seeking an extraction process that doesn’t involve chemical solvents, as well as for people following a raw foods diet.

Refined versus unrefined
Refining sunflower oil through solvent extraction, degumming, neutralization and bleaching can make it more stable and suitable for high-temperature cooking, but will also remove some of the oil’s nutrients and flavor, including color pigments, free fatty acids, phospholipids, polyphenols and phytosterols. Unrefined sunflower oil is less heat stable, but will retain more of its original nutrient content and flavor, and is well suited to dishes that require low- or no-heat.

Ah!! So what are we eating? As a mater of facts, there is a definition for Natural Ingredients which I find worth sharing: In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency restricts the use of natural to foods that have “ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.”

My word of wisdom: In doubt, go for raw.

I understand this article my attract diverse points of view. That is interesting, please share what you think. I am convinced the specialty food industry can play a positive part in that matter. We are what we eat, and in a complex world, food becomes complex – not always for the best.


3 Comments on “What is “Natural Food”, really?”

  1. I believe that if you have a question about how something is processed you should ask the company if they are honest and really want to produce a health product without the use of any chemicals they will tell others may hide behind the phrase of ‘secret process’ claiming that they do not want others to steal their process.

    • Thank you 2momsnaturalskincare. I agree that most ethical company will likely answer any questions. This bring a more general question: when do we have time, as consumer to fact check every single product we buy. It is not about being suspicious, I think most of the time, it is simply a lack of knowledge.
      Great blog BTW, love your advices about skincare during the wintertime!!

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