What does “natural” really mean?

Andrew Brandon, Graduate Student, UC Berkeley
February 24, 2017

In August, three non-profits (Moms Across America, Beyond Pesticides and the Organic Consumers Association) filed a joint lawsuit against food giant General Mills for misleading consumers with the use of the phrase “Made with 100% natural whole grain oats” on their Nature Valley granola bars. They claimed that the use of glyphosate-based herbicides on the oats makes it impossible to consider them “100% natural.” “Glyphosate cannot be considered ‘natural’ because it is a toxic, synthetic herbicide,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “Identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a carcinogen, [glyphosate] should not be allowed for use in food production, and certainly not in food with a label that suggests to consumers that the major ingredient –oats– is 100% natural, when it is produced with and contains the highly hazardous glyphosate,” he said1. While glyphosate is likely dangerous in large doses, the WHO and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization determined that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet” and “unlikely to be genotoxic [capable of damaging genetic material] at anticipated dietary exposures3.” While the levels of glyphosate found in some processed foods may not be a cancer concern, this lawsuit brings up the larger question of what are you really learning about the product with labels like “all natural,” “100% natural” or “Made with natural ingredients?” What does that label mean?

A Consumer Reports survey conducted in 2015 found that 66% of consumers seek out products with “natural” on the label2. However, there is currently no federally regulated standard – a legally enforceable definition of the word “natural” as it pertains to food products. The lack of such a definition means that there is a disparity between what consumers expect from products labeled natural and the products that food companies actually label that way. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempted to solve this problem and come up with a standard definition of natural in 1991 by soliciting input from the public. However, they failed to come to a real conclusion explaining “none of the comments provided [the] FDA with a specific direction to follow for developing a definition”. Thus, the word continued to be used without any clear meaning. More recently, numerous legal disputes have arisen between public advocacy groups and large food companies, like Snapple, Häagen-Dazs and Whole Foods. In these cases, judges largely elected to stay their decisions by citing the doctrine of primary jurisdiction; that means they had the discretion to defer to the technical expertise of the regulatory agency most relevant to the issue, i.e., the FDA. Without a definition of the word from the FDA, these cases remain in limbo.

The recent rash of legal disputes and several citizens’ petitions have renewed pressure on the FDA to define the term. So, much as they did in 1991, the agency made a request for public comments on the issue. They sought to address several questions. Is it appropriate or necessary to define the term “natural?” If so, how should it be defined? How should its appropriate use on food labels be determined? When the request period closed in May of 2016, the FDA had received nearly 8,000 comments from individuals, industry and public interest groups. As of February 2017, a decision has yet to be reached.

As a person with above average understanding of the biological sciences, it’s not surprising to me that the FDA would have a difficult time setting a legal definition of the word “natural.” The word is not inherently meaningful. Its modern interpretation seems to stem from the naturalistic fallacy and the bizarre assumption that humans, and many of the things we make or do, are somehow separate from nature. Despite the average consumer’s associations with the word, natural certainly can’t be considered synonymous with good. After all, anthrax and Ebola are “natural.” High infant mortality rates are “natural.” Cannibalism among chimpanzees is “natural.”

However, I digress. In the much narrower context of agriculture and the food industry, what should be the definition of the word? The long-standing, but not enforceable, recommendation of the FDA has been that nothing artificial or synthetic be added to foods labeled natural. This recommendation notably does not address the presence or absence in processed foods of ingredients from crops developed using genetic engineering (GMOs). However, many consumers consider GMOs as epitomizing un-“natural,” so it will be important to determine how they fit into the “natural” label debate. First, the fact that any food is considered natural demonstrates just how unaware the average consumer is of the enormous role humans have had in the development of the plants that constitute our diet. There are few, if any, crops on the market today that haven’t been modified in some way by humans. The crops we are familiar with today would look and taste very different if not for human intervention. The wild ancestors of watermelons, for example, were only about two inches in diameter and full of seeds. Ancestral bananas were also full of seeds and probably tasted starchy, more like potatoes.

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Through artificial selection over thousands of years, humans have been able to enhance the crop traits most appealing to us like size, texture, taste and yield. However, selective breeding is not the only way in which humans have been involved in changing the “natural world”. The normal rate of mutation, which can lead to improved varieties, is much too slow for the development of agriculturally important crops. So, much harsher and more invasive techniques involving gamma radiation and toxic chemicals were used to introduce many hundreds or thousands of random mutations into crop genomes. Then, plants with novel, desirable mutations are identified and those plants are repeatedly crossed with parental lines in an effort to eliminate as many of the other mutations as possible. This technique has been used to develop fruits like pears and grapefruit, as well as dozens of varieties of wheat. Despite the use of toxic chemicals and radiation and the possibility that the plants contain many unknown mutations, all of these crops are considered by most consumers to be natural and are even grown and sold as organic. In contrast, modern genetic modification involves the insertion of genetic constructs into the plant genome. The inserted genes may be derived from a wide variety of species, but the DNA itself is synthesized in a lab. After what is typically insertion into a single site in the genome, the effects of the gene product can then be studied directly in the plant. No radiation or harsh chemicals are required with this technique and the risk of causing off-target mutations in the plant is very low. Indeed, considering only GMOs to be “unnatural” is arbitrary and signifies a troubling gap in public knowledge when it comes to agriculture and food.

Most consumers believe, often erroneously, that foods labeled natural are free of food additives: chemicals added during food processing to modify the characteristics of the final product. While it can be argued that many food additives are used simply to fulfill the consumers’ expectations of what food should look and taste like, additives like preservatives and antioxidants have undoubtedly played important roles in the health and safety of people around the world. While one could say that any products that are made without preservatives are “natural,” is vilifying these types of preservatives wise? Is public mistrust of preservatives something we should be encouraging? The sheer size of the human population on earth, as well as the wide range of environments in which we live, makes it impossible for everyone to grow their own food and maintain a balanced diet. This means that a fair portion of the average diet consists of food that was harvested hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The food is processed after harvesting and preservatives are often added in order to prevent spoiling and the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. While humans have used spices like peppercorn, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger as preservatives for hundreds of years, modern synthetic preservatives are more effective and don’t modify the flavor of the food. Severe and sometimes fatal food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria and Clostridium botulinum would be much more common without modern food preservatives.

            While the FDA has yet to decide whether or how to define “natural,” I am not sure if such a definition would be truly beneficial to consumers. First, defining some foods as “natural” oversimplifies the issue. It creates a dichotomy that requires that other foods be considered unnatural, regardless of their actual derivation or nutritional quality. Such a definition could also exacerbate the fear and misunderstanding of chemistry already too prevalent in society. As I told my sister while grocery shopping for her kids, just because you have trouble pronouncing the name of an ingredient on the label, that doesn’t mean it is bad for you. There is a terrible misconception among the public that most agricultural and food scientists are not to be trusted, that they are merely shills of mega-corporations looking to cut costs and increase revenue, even at the expense of consumer health and safety. As hard as it is for some to believe, many scientists, especially in the public sector, are actually motivated by the potential to benefit humanity at large. They want to make it possible to grow more food so fewer people go hungry and make our food last longer so less of it goes bad before it can be eaten. It’s important to recognize that the application of scientific learning to the food we eat can improve our lives.

I think a more impactful solution to the “natural” labeling debate would be to educate consumers about what food additives are contained in their food and the roles, benefits and potential risks of those additives. Therefore, in spite of the government’s typical inclination to regulate and define everything, I believe the meaning of “natural” on food labels should remain open to interpretation. In addition, the public should be made more aware that no legal obligation comes with a “natural” label and any food bearing the label should not be considered implicitly better. Then, perhaps, they may be more motivated to look at the list of ingredients in what they buy and investigate what’s in their food for themselves.


  1. General Mills Sued over Glyphosate Contamination in ‘Natural’ Nature Valley Snack https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/general-mills-sued-over-glyphosate-contamination-natural-nature-valley-snack
  1. Natural Food Labels Survey. (2016, January 29). http://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/peeling-back-the-natural-food-label/
  1. U.N. experts find weed killer glyphosate unlikely to cause cancer
    Health Kelland-Science Correspondent –
    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-who-glyphosate-idUSKCN0Y71HR

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