Readers of a certain age may remember the underground comics character Mr. Natural. The brainchild of artist Robert Crumb, Mr. Natural was a likeable con man with a long white beard and flowing yellow gown. Having supposedly renounced the material world, he traded on his mystique of genuineness all the while winking to the readers of his comic strip.
Likewise, the label natural connotes a certain imagery: freshly grown food, pure water, safe consumption. Things described as natural are portrayed as being simple and lacking the intervention of culture, industry, and artificiality.
Let’s take a closer look.
A can of seltzer water in my refrigerator announces “Naturally Flavored Cranberry Lime.” The water is tasty, but does the description mean that it is flavored with fruit juice? On the back of the can, above the box labelled Nutrition Facts, is the statement CONTAINS NO FRUIT JUICE. Below the Nutrition Facts box are the words INGREDIENTS: CARBONATED WATER, NATURAL FLAVORS. So if the natural flavors are not from fruit juice, what are they from?
Similarly, an Apple Raspberry Fruit-to-Go snack food announces that it is a “100% fruit strip” but “with other natural flavors.” Can it be both 100% fruit and have other natural ingredients?
Natural ingredients, it turns out, are the fourth most common thing listed on food labels, right after salt, water, and sugar. But what exactly are they? The Code of Federal Regulations, the codification of US administrative law, tells what can be used in a natural flavoring. It’s a long list and it includes fruit or fruit juice but also herbs, bark, buds, roots, and leaves. Natural ingredients are just ones that come from natural sources, but they may be processed by purifying and extracting some flavor-giving ingredient which is then added back to the food. So natural ingredients come from nature but there is some chemistry involved.
It’s not just flavorings that are given the allure of nature. A restaurant in my town had a hamburger described this way:
Natural Beef, House-made Thousand Island Dressing, Live Bibb Lettuce, American Cheese, Fresh Cut Fries, Portland Ketchup
The adjectives sound appealing: house-made dressing, live lettuce (okay, that one’s a little scary), cheese from America, fries that are fresh cut. And natural beef.
What’s natural beef? That’s up to the US Department of Agriculture, which sets labeling requirements for the use the term natural for meat. But the USDA only requires that meat not contain any artificial ingredients or preservatives and that the food be minimally processed. The exact details of the livestock management practices are not specified, and the naturalness is established by an affidavit signed by the producer. So natural here is part of branding and marketing but lacks the detailed technical definition of, say, organic beef.
The USDA has pretty strict guidelines for how the term organic can be used, distinguishing certified organic foods, both animal and produce, and made with organic foods, which must have 70% certified organic ingredients. A variety of factors go into the labelling of something as organic, including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and irradiation.
None of that applies to the term natural. The Food and Drug Administration, as of this writing, has not come up with a comprehensive definition of natural. In practice, it allows natural to be used if a product doesn’t contain any artificial or synthetic additives or ingredients, but the FDA says little about how something is processed or produced.
If all of this sounds a little artificial to you, I understand. The concepts of nature and natural loom large in our thinking, as a set of vaguely alluring qualities. But sometimes when we try to get back to nature, we are not getting what we think. Take a trip to your local market and see what shouts out natural to you.