“High-tech tomatoes; mysterious milk; super squash. Are we supposed to eat this stuff? Or is it going to eat us?”
— Annita Manning
Natural or unnatural?
I often get odd questions from people who I enjoy looking up. One, which a number of people have asked me is, “What is ‘natural,’ and what does it mean?”
The confusion hit me several months ago when I picked up a jar of peanut butter at the store. The label was very old-fashioned looking and said “natural.” Thinking it was just peanuts and salt, like the ones labeled “Old-Fashioned,” I discovered it contained quite a list of ingredients, in fact the same ingredients that were on the regular jar of processed peanut butter. The only difference, the price was higher for the “natural” peanut butter.
Most people have a common-sense definition of what “natural” is or should be. For example, “natural” to a lot of people simply means being able to pronounce all the ingredients and not needing a chemistry textbook to understand them. Good luck on that one. The simple dictionary definition is “something not manmade or artificial.”
Many people have written about the subject and come up with many ideas which show how really hard it is to define, and also point out that all things “natural” are not necessarily good. Fleas are natural, flea collars are unnatural; nudity is natural, clothes are unnatural; being bitten by a snake and dying is natural and civilization, indoor plumbing and cars are all obviously unnatural.
Back to the subject at hand, the Federal Trade Commission is the watchdog for bogus environmental claims. The FTC’s guidance does not address “natural” marketing claims specifically. However, it does include a section that states: “… every express and material implied claim that the general assertion conveys to reasonable consumers about an objective quality, feature or attribute of a product or service must be substantiated.”
Since most of us that read that say, “What?” It is obviously up to the consumer to make the final decision.
When it comes to food labeling, there is not much help. It is only applied to meat, fish and poultry products. In that case, “natural” labels can only be used if they do not contain “artificial flavoring, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients” (whatever that may mean). Thus, in most cases the “natural” label has no official definition and can be used without any government approval.
So, what do you do? If you want to feed your family foods with the least artificial ingredients, educate yourself — read and ask questions, and, by the way, as my son told me 20 years ago, the Internet has more misinformation than information.
Then pick brands that not only list, but discuss their ingredients. Then, stick to those brands if you like them. And remember, just because it is in the “natural” food section of the grocery store does not mean it should not be scrutinized.