It is tempting to think that all foods labelled “natural”, “all natural”, or “100% natural” are healthier. But what does natural actually mean? And are natural foods really healthier? You may be surprised by the answer… it really isn’t that simple and it turns out that what natural means is different in different countries and it is regulated to different extents in those countries.
"Natural" foods can be deadly
Although natural sounds healthy, not everything that is “natural” is healthy. In some cases what is natural can be deadly. Fugu or pufferfish is a dish in Japan that if not carefully prepared can be lethal. Ovaries, intestines and liver of fugu contain the toxic agent tetrodotoxin. This is a neurotoxin that is up to 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide. A single fish has enough poison to kill 30 people and if it is prepared incorrectly, this pufferfish can results in paralysis and cause respiratory arrest that can be fatal. Japanese chefs need to obtain a fugu-preparing licence. After extensive training they are allowed to prepare fugu and serve it. Despite these precautions, several people die every year from improperly prepared fugu.
So, we may eat something that is all “natural” but it is actually deadly. There are many more examples, also of more common foods. For example, cassava is a root that is used in various dishes, but the leaves of cassava are poisonous (cyanide). Many other foods contain poisons, but this would probably only affect us if we ate very large amounts of it. Rhubarb contains oxalate but this would only kill us if we ate 5 kg (11 pounds) of rhubarb (which not many of us would do).
Some foods may be no problem for most people but for others (those with certain allergies), it can be deadly. A peanut allergy for example is well-known example of such an allergy. The bottom-line is that not everything that is natural is healthy and several foods that are natural can actually kill us.
What makes foods "natural"?
Some foods have a claim to be “natural”, but what does this mean? It is probably best to look at some examples. In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) must approve label claims. If you want to label meat with claim like “natural”, the FDA needs to approve this. In this example the “natural” claim is approved if the product is no more than “minimally processed” and does not contain artificial ingredients such as artificial flavoring or coloring and chemical preservatives. However, it could still be that the cow was given antibiotics and hormones before it became a food product. Milk and meat can contain traces of hormones and antibiotics and separate documentation is required if some one wants to make these claims. So the claims “no hormones” and “no antibiotics” need additional approval, but you can claim “natural” without these additional approvals. Meat with the label natural might thus contain “un-natural” compounds like antibiotics and synthetic hormones.
The claims "no hormones" and "no antibiotics" need additional approval, but you can claim "natural" without these approvals.
Labelling of other foods
For other foods the FDA considers “natural” any food to which nothing artificial or synthetic was added “that would not normally be expected to be there / in that food”. This definition is incredibly vague and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. A little more precisely, the FDA states that a product without colorants (regardless of source) or synthetic substances (including artificial flavoring) can be labelled “natural”. Note that, for the FDA, the label “natural” doesn’t reflect “food processing or manufacturing methods” or “food production methods, such as the use of genetic engineering or other forms of genetic modification, the use of pesticides, or the use of specific animal husbandry practices”.
"Natural" foods but with pesticides
"Natural" also doesn’t mean it is free of pesticides or other nasty chemicals. “Natural” foods such as fruit and vegetables may have been treated with pesticides to protect them from insect plagues and even vigorous washing them will not remove all of the chemicals and some of the chemical will have penetrated the interior of the produce. Chemicals such as copper sulphate, rhodamine oxide, malachite green and carbide are sometimes used to accentuate coloration and freshness. Edible synthetic wax is used to make apples and other fruits shiny, so it looks more appetizing. Washing does not eliminate the chemicals and some will have already penetrated into the interior. Therefore, a “natural” food may not be as “natural” as we think it is.
A "natural" food may not be as natural as we think!
"Natural" foods may or may not be healthier
In short, the “natural” label isn’t tightly regulated. Importantly, “natural” is usually not defined in relation to the healthfulness of the food. In other words, a “natural” label doesn’t guarantee the product is healthful, but it could be. As with many claims, they are more marketing vehicles rather than helpful indications for consumers about how healthy foods are. Such claims are more often misleading, than they are helpful.