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All-natural?

Navigating ‘natural’: How much meaning does the word really have?

Despite having no government-approved definition, the term’s been embraced by marketers and the public.

March 5, 2014
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From flavors to additives to the finished confection, one overarching trend exists — natural.

It represents a huge chunk of the growth within the better-for-you category, fueled — in part — by demand from increasingly educated consumers. Today, when it comes to ingredients, it’s all about transparency. With that transparency comes pressure to offer foods with more healthful additives. People want to know what they’re putting into their bodies, they want to see that it’s good for them, and they equate healthy with natural. 

Valerie King
Valerie King

No surprise then that the natural movement has infiltrated confections.

There’s no doubt the confectionery industry is aware and attentive to the call for buying beneficial foods. But just what does natural mean? What makes a product natural? And do all of the self-proclaimed natural treats live up to the expectation that natural means good?

With natural being the most widespread trend in my recent stories, I thought it made sense to figure out what exactly that means.

The term gets thrown around a lot, and for a concept that’s supposed to go hand-in-hand with transparency, I found that there sure isn’t a clear definition or understanding of what it is or what its implications are.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “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.”

But, the FDA does include a disclaimer. It goes on, “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.”

Oh, thanks. That helps. Really, that’s the best the agency could do?

What’s worse, even the dictionary has trouble conquering the definition.

Merriam Webster says “food that has undergone minimal processing and contains no preservatives or artificial additives.”

OK. That’s better. But what counts as minimal processing? And even if the dictionary did have a functional definition, it wouldn’t matter. What the FDA has to say is what counts.

One thing is clear about the term. While all organic foods are natural, not all natural ingredients are organic. The two are completely separate concepts, so don’t confuse them.

It’s safe to say that certified organic foods, regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), follow strict guidelines while the term natural is not regulated.

In fact, reading a label that claims a product is natural can mislead customers into thinking the confection is healthier than would be otherwise, or that it’s clear of artificial ingredients altogether.

Many sweets that claim to be natural also include synthetic ingredients. What’s more, the effects of artificial additives can be very similar if not the same as those of natural ingredients.

I mean, think about it. Artificial ingredients do have to be approved by the FDA and although they’re created in labs as opposed to extracted from nature, they can actually contain key nutrients. For example, vitamin C can be created in a lab.

So what am I getting to? Don’t sweat it! It’s a word that really doesn’t mean much, at least not until the FDA establishes a definition.

After all, we’re talking about confections here! Historically, if you’re looking for nutrition, the candy aisle is probably the wrong place to be anyway.

And, unlike the infamously ambiguous word, ‘natural’, “candy” does have a clear definition.  According to Merriam-Webster it’s “a confection made with sugar and often flavoring and filling.” Bing’s definition: “small sweet food items, usually eaten for pleasure and not as part of a meal.”

So I stretched it with the use of Bing as a dictionary, but I really like their meaning because it’s my point in a nutshell.

My love for candy increases with each passing day. But I don’t eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (And according to Bing, I shouldn’t).

So, kudos to society for demanding healthier, more wholesome foods, after all we are what we eat and we deserve to know what we’re putting into our bodies.

We deserve beneficial options, but you won’t catch me applying those expectations to the array of caramels and chocolates from which I like to indulge. In those, my taste buds find a tap dance that main course meals will never fulfill.

If I haven’t convinced you to ditch the demands when it comes to candy, it’s worth noting that natural claims on the front of a package don’t necessarily mean what we think they should. So take it upon yourself to flip it over and read through the ingredients before making your decision.

Because ironically, natural may not be quite such a see-through concept after all. 

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