What is "natural" food?

Today, it seems that we are all quite sure about the definition of organic food, at least we can easily identify such foods by the "organic certified" label.

There is a new kind of food labeling appearing in the supermarket. This food category is cheaper than the organic food, and it sounds healthier than conventional food. One of my favorites is "all natural chicken". I am not an organic food person (long story), but I am all about the freedom of chicken before slaughtering, and joined the early group of customers to support cage-free eggs. So, when I saw "all natural chicken", I imagined a beautiful green grass field with wild flowers, hens and roosters are roaming around, catching worms... However, it turns out facts are not always as I imagined. "Natural" is a beautiful marketing slogan, and can be misleading.

The USDA definition of "natural" is as follows:(1) The product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and (2) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. Minimal processing may include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting, or (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole, intact food into component parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumen and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices.

There is no requirement of how animals were raised or plants were grown. However, USDA requires each manufacturer to explain its own "natural" statement on the label.

For example, one of my favorite brands explains under "all natural chicken" as "no hormone or antibiotics". So it is not cage free, nor is using organic feed; another brand describes its "natural" as "Amish farm raised", while I am no expert on Amish farms, I can only assume the chicken are raised by Amish people.

So, when you see "natural" food, read its label carefully, and then you can decide if you like this version of "natural" or not. It could be also the case that most often you won't find much information provided to ponder about.


The author of this article holds a Ph.D. in Food Science, and has a working experience of over 15 years in food and pharmaceutical industries.