‘All Natural’ on the Food Label

When processed foods claim to be "all natural," it doesn't necessarily mean the food is unaltered or healthy.
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As a consumer, you may be interested in buying the healthiest foods you can find, which means you’ll be gleaning nutrition and health information from food labels. Two sources of information include the nutrition facts label and the ingredients list located on the back or side of the packaging.

In addition to those required labels, you may find a host of health or nutrition claims made on the front of the packaging. One common claim is "natural," "all natural," or "made with natural ingredients." What does it mean when food manufacturers’ use these terms?

Defining 'All Natural'

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition of "natural" that fits the food world best is "closely resembling an original: true to nature." So, all-natural foods should be those that are closest to their pure, natural state. However, it’s hard to imagine any processed food as being close to its natural state, as most ingredients have undergone some kind of alteration before being placed on store shelves.

The belief, of course, is that something that’s "all natural" is going to be much better for you than something that contains artificial ingredients. While that may or may not be true (folic acid, for example, is an artificial form of B vitamin that’s beneficial), seeing the word "natural" on a food product may not mean what you hope it means.

What the FDA Says About ‘Natural’

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides what types of health and nutrition claims can be put on packaged foods. For example, the FDA has requirements for using the phrase "low fat" on a food label. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t have an official definition for natural foods, so their official position on using the word "natural" is that the term is appropriate if the food does not contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Without any formal regulation, the consumer is left to trust the food manufacturers. A food product that’s made with "all-natural" ingredients could still contain hormones, GMOs, or other things some consumers worry about. Natural foods don’t have to be organically produced, and it doesn’t mean the farm animals were treated well. All-natural foods can also be high in calories, fats, sodium, or sugar.

In short, if you see the words "all natural" on a food package, you still need to do a little digging to truly know if the product is good for you and your family.

Tips for Shopping for Natural Foods

Here’s what you need to do if you want to buy all-natural foods at the grocery store. Clearly, the freshest produce is all natural because it’s unaltered and pretty much just what was harvested days or weeks earlier. A potato is natural, just the way it is. So is an apple or an orange.

The concept of "all natural" gets more complicated when you look at processed foods. First, it’s important to point out that not all processed foods are bad. Pasteurized milk, canned tuna, and frozen veggies are all examples of processed foods that can be good for you.

Meats, Poultry, and Fish

Choose items that are minimally processed, such as lean cuts of beef and pork, fresh chicken pieces, and fresh or frozen seafood. Processed meats such as sausage and bacon are likely to contain artificial flavorings or preservatives, so check out the ingredients list before you buy.

Dairy Products

Regular milk may contain recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Research has found connections between rBGH and elevated levels of IGF-1 hormone in humans. Health authorities disagree on whether or not higher levels of IGF-1 could pose a significant cancer risk. The FDA has judged rBGH to be safe for consumption, but organizations in Canada and the European Union have banned its use.

If you want to avoid milk with growth hormones, look for rBGH-free milk. If you’re shopping for yogurt, look for plain yogurt or varieties that only contain yogurt, fruits, honey, and nuts. Colored yogurts often contain artificial colorings, especially those aimed at kids.

Prepackaged Snack Foods

Very few brands of cookies, chips, crackers, or other snack foods are really going to be all natural, but if you go to the natural foods section of the store, you may see some that claim to be made with natural ingredients. It doesn’t mean they’re good for you. Dig further into the label to make your decision based on nutrition facts and ingredients.

Breads and Cereals

Kids’ cereals are often colored with artificial colorings, but you may be able to find brands colored with natural colors such as beet juice. Remember that whole grains are healthier than refined flours, and the forms of sugar found in "natural" products are just as high in calories as the sugars found in artificial products.

A Word From Verywell

The idea of buying "all-natural" foods may seem like a good idea, but since the FDA doesn’t regulate the use of the word, you’ll need to examine the ingredients list and the nutrition facts labels to find the healthiest packaged foods.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.