What Does Natural Mean?

Dan DeFigioNutrition Advice

There are several terms used on food labels that can be confusing. What does “natural” mean? What’s the difference between grass-fed and organic beef?

natural meanMany of these terms sound healthy, but might not mean what you think. Here are five common labeling terms, with what they really mean, and what they don’t:

Natural

The Food and Drug Administration has not developed a formal definition for the term “natural”. However, manufacturers can use the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Natural does not mean organic though, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that a food is healthy. A breakfast cereal labeled “natural” can have many types of added sugar.

Tip: when you see this term, read the ingredient list. It’s the only way to really know what’s in a food, and if it’s worthy of a spot in your cart.

Organic

The USDA Organic Seal indicates that a food was produced without synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), or petroleum or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The symbol also means that organic meat and dairy products are from animals fed organic, vegetarian feed, are provided access to the outdoors, and not treated with hormones or antibiotics. If the seal says ‘100% Organic’ the product was made with 100% organic ingredients. Just the word ‘Organic’ (without the “100%”) indicates that the food is made with at least 95% organic ingredients.

“Made With Organic Ingredients” means the product was made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, with restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no GMOs. I strongly support organic food, but the term “organic” doesn’t equal healthy. There are all kinds of organic junk foods like cookies and candies available. Once again, when buying packaged food, you must read the ingredient list.

Local

This term generally indicates that a food was produced within a certain geographical region from where it’s purchased or consumed, such as within 400 miles or 100 miles or perhaps within the borders of a state. Like natural, there is no formal national definition for the term local. What local does not mean is organic, which is something 23% of shoppers falsely believe according to a recent U.S. and Canadian survey (17% also believe that a food labeled organic is also local, which isn’t accurate either).

Nearly 30% also think that “local” products are more nutritious, and that’s not a given, since there are no specific standards pertaining to ingredients or processing. Also, it’s important to know that a locally produced food may not contain a Nutrition Facts label, because small companies with a low number of full-time employees or low gross annual sales are often exempt from the FDA’s food labeling laws. Hopefully a locally produced goody, like a pie from your farmer’s market, will include a voluntary ingredient list, but if not, be sure to ask what’s in it and how it was made.

Gluten-Free

Technical stuff: According to the FDA, the term gluten-free means that a food must limit the unavoidable presence of gluten to less than 20 parts per million (ppm). The FDA also allows manufacturers to label a food as gluten-free if it does NOT contain any ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains, or has been derived from these grains, or if it contains ingredients that have been derived from these grains, but have been processed to remove gluten to less than 20 ppm.

This means that foods that are inherently gluten-free like water, vegetables, and fruits, can also be labeled as gluten-free. The term gluten free-does not indicate that a food is whole grain, organic, low-carb, or healthy. In fact, many gluten-free foods are highly processed and include ingredients like refined white rice, sugar, and salt.

Grass-Fed

Grass-fed makes for healthier meat, but “grass-fed” does not mean “organic”. Grass-fed does not mean that the cattle’s feed is organic, and it doesn’t mean they cannot be given hormones or antibiotics. Compared to products produced conventionally, grass-fed meat and dairy have been shown to contain more “good” fats, less “bad” fats, and higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. But if you want to ensure that the product also meets the organic standards, look for that label term and the USDA organic seal as well.