It turns out that the term “natural” doesn’t mean all that much. Because it’s only been broadly defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s a fairly arbitrary term, the meaning of which is left up to the conscience of the food manufacturer. The FDA says that any food can be labeled as natural so long as it doesn’t include added color, synthetic substances or artificial flavors.
This definition sounds good–until you realize that it can be stretched to include such definitely non-natural substances such as aspartame, the artificial sweetener. More liberal food manufacturers argue that “natural” means any material that exists in nature. While aspartame does not exist in nature (you have to use a chemical process to create it), manufacturers say that the resulting product is made up of two amino acids, both of which do exist in nature. Never mind that they don’t exist glued together as aspartame!
So what can the savvy nutritionally-conscious consumer do about this? Go with a term that is clearly defined and regulated by the FDA: organic. In the next issue we’ll delve into the intricacies of organic foods, including basic regulations and differing levels of organic production. In the meantime, avoid foods that are only labeled as “natural” and go for those labeled “organic” or “natural and organic.” It’s the real stuff.