How Natural Are Natural Ingredients, Really? - Public Goods

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How Natural Are Natural Ingredients, Really?

The word ‘natural’ might be on the label of your raw chicken, your granola bars, your milk, and even your face wash.

tomatoes, carrots, squash

It’s natural to question labels like this! After all, why wouldn’t something like raw chicken be natural?

Often, the term is used without any real evidence, which leaves consumers pretty confused.

Nearly everything is made from ‘natural’ chemicals and ingredients. The dictionary defines ‘all-natural’ as “being composed of ingredients that are from nature and not artificial.” That’s pretty noncommittal, especially when it comes to the food we put in our bodies and the personal care products we use.

Unlike ‘organic,’ the term ‘natural’ isn’t regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Instead, it’s really just a marketing term used by companies to greenwash consumers. Not only is this misleading, but it also makes it difficult to weed out and support the brands that are committed to healthy and safe products.

The FDA’s Definition of Natural Ingredients: A Short History

Historically, the FDA hasn’t participated in the use of the word ‘natural’ on food products. However, as the use of the word has increased, consumers are looking for more answers when it comes to what’s in their food.

In information updated in 2018, the FDA communicated an official policy on the term. In 2015, they facilitated a call for public comment on the definition of ‘natural’ and how it should be used on food labels. More than 7,000 passionate and concerned citizens replied, many of which zeroed in on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods labeled ‘natural’.

Although it’s fairly nonbinding and unenforceable, here is the FDA’s stance on the term.

“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.”

This policy doesn’t incorporate how the food or even individual food ingredients are processed, what happens during production, how it’s manufactured, or anything regarding its nutritional content.

What Are Natural Ingredients?

fruits, vegetables, grocery

Since there isn’t a regulated definition of all-natural, it’s up to consumers to make their own definitions that align with their values.

Objectively, the below is what natural ingredients are and are not.

Natural Ingredients Are…

  • Present in nature or made by nature
  • Derivatives of plants or animals
  • Extracted with simple chemical processes like cold-pressing, dehydration or evaporation

Natural Ingredients Are Not…

  • Made synthetically
  • Extracted or processed with petroleum-based chemicals
  • GMOs
  • Artificial or contain artificial flavors or colors

There can be some tricky examples here, like essential oils. Essential oils are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial oils extracted from produce or herbs we recognize like orange, lavender, and oregano.

For many people, this is enough to make them safe for daily application, use, and even ingestion (but always be sure to double check – tea tree oil is toxic). However, this is where the processing of the product becomes important. Some essential oils are extracted with chemicals, which negates the purpose of them being ‘natural’ and healthy.

What Should You Look For When Looking At Ingredients?

Just as other labels like organic, vegan, and fair trade pop up on skincare, deodorant, and clothing in addition to food, you might see the term on virtually anything you buy.

As a consumer, the best thing to do is to read labels and ask questions. If a label makes a claim, take a look at the ingredients. Is there anything there that you don’t recognize? If an ingredient seems sketchy, does the label list where it comes from? If you’re unsure, check out the company’s website. If they’re truly committed to safe and healthy ingredients, you’ll be able to tell based on their mission statement.

Michael Pollan, renowned food author, says to stick to the basics. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” In simpler terms, eat something that your great-grandmother would recognize, or was made by a plant instead of in one.

To accomplish this, stick to the outskirts of the grocery store. That’s where you’ll find produce, dairy, and meat, whereas the heavily processed food is throughout the aisles. If you are craving your favorite salty snack, see if there’s an organic alternative, since those products are likely to be closer to the natural world and use fruit as coloring or preservatives.

Tips for Shopping for Natural Foods

Here’s how to sift through the ingredients list on packaged foods and pick foods that are all-natural and better aligned with your values.

Packaged Snacks

two bowls of popcorn on wooden table, popcorn kernels on table, checkered tablecloth

Snacks can be anything from the Cheetos (that your great-grandmother would definitely not recognize) to packaged nuts or dried fruit. When you’re on the hunt for snack food, we advise that you read the labels and specifically check for ‘natural flavors’ or ‘natural preservatives’.

Neither is guaranteed to be good or bad for you, but natural flavors (although they can have a checkered past) are likely closer to nature than artificial ingredients. Preservatives are something people commonly try to avoid simply because they sound bad, but plant-based preservatives like citric acid and potassium sorbate are better than the alternative of bacteria-ridden, spoiled food.

Check for ingredients you can pronounce, like oil, salt, and spices. Try making your own snacks at home, like popping your own popcorn or baking sweet potato fries.

Fish, Meat & Poultry

grill with chicken, sausage, t bone steak

Since ‘natural’ actually does mean something to the USDA for meat and poultry, here are the requirements for a product to bear the term:

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).”

Since meat and poultry is an industry ridden with animal cruelty, factory farming, forced feedings, cages, and antibiotic use, we recommend tacking on labels with more weight to them like USDA Certified Organic. Keep in mind that ‘chemical-free’ is not allowed to be used on labels, so steer clear of products with that.

Shelf-Stable Bread Products

sliced loaf of wheat bread

Depending on your values and budget, you might be looking for different things when you flip over a loaf of sandwich bread to check the label. Generally, with bread, the fewer ingredients the better. The only exception is a plethora of seeds and grains.

To make bread, all you need is flour, water, yeast, salt, and time. But to keep it shelf-stable, you might see “enriched flour” as the first ingredient. Flour contains essential nutrients, but that also means it spoils quicker than we’d like. To avoid that, manufacturers process the flour to remove all the nutrients, bleach it with chlorine for the classic white color and then replace the nutrients.

To many, unbleached flour doesn’t sound nutritious. But that’s not the case. Unbleached flour is still bleached, but through more natural methods like drying. It comes in contact with fewer chemicals too. When you’re buying bread, look for whole grains. Those are the healthiest grains with the most nutrient content.


assortment of red strawberries

We can all agree that the use of synthetic pesticides on crops is harmful. Avoid ingesting hazardous pesticides by choosing USDA Certified Organic produce. Nothing with that label can have GMOs either, so all your bases are covered.

Since we can’t always rely on labels to guide our purchasing, it’s up to us as consumers to question ingredients, stay curious, and value certifications that really do uphold our morals. If you’re skeptical about products at the grocery store, try making something from scratch that you normally buy, like bread or crackers. That way, you can control every ingredient and make sure they’re all-natural, according to your own definition.

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