What does “natural” actually mean


More and more I see "natural" or "all natural" labels on the slightly-cheaper alternatives next to "organic" products, and I find it somewhat confusing. I know that (for example) tofu does not occur in nature, so obviously "natural" does not refer to the whole product, but to the ingredients. But many common ingredients do not occur naturally in the processed forms that we use either.

Today I saw an ad declaring the "first all-natural burger in fast food". This seems like a pretty specific claim for something so nebulous, so it led me to wonder: What exactly does "natural" mean in the context of food? Are there specific rules, or can anyone slap a "natural" label on anything?

Best Answer

Short answer? Not a damn thing. The term is pretty much meaningless in the US; at best it only means that the product doesn't have added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic "stuff". From the FDA:

What is the meaning of 'natural' on the label of food?

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.