The Ambiguity of “Natural” Labels

October 4, 2021

As we’ve learned more about food in the past few decades, we’ve gotten glimpses into all the ways these foods are produced and processed. For many, seeing how the gears of the food industry turn gives an unsettling perspective on how far we’ve diverted from more traditional ways of cultivating and consuming food – more natural ways. Just as many people are attracted by “artisan-made” or “hand-crafted” goods because of their appeal to a more human experience, many consumers place value in products that are sown from a less processing-intensive, and natural means of cultivation. It’s an intuitive understanding for most folks – the closer we are to nature, the healthier life becomes. As we’ll see, the claim to “natural” is another way that marketing has swindled us into false beliefs.
For just a moment, see what comes to mind when you think of “natural” food. How about “unnatural” food? Can you define a clear difference between the two? In general, calling something “natural” is a bit slippery as nearly anything can be conceived as “natural” if it’s occurring in the world – even the development of technology can be seen as natural if you consider it an extension of human creation. The only way to be clear on what we mean by “natural” is to have a clear, agreed-upon definition with distinct parameters for what the term constitutes. As it happens, when it comes to the claim of natural foods, the definition that’s officially stated allows for more ambiguity than it does provide clarity.

Cheetohs are “natural” as far as the industry’s definition is concerned.

The USDA’s definition of natural is as follows: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” At a quick glance, this would seem to fit for a simple definition of “natural”, however, it’s still very vague and leaves a lot of range for unscrupulous activity. As an example, chickens can be receiving a litany of antibiotics their entire lives and still be sold with the “natural” label on the packaging.  Pesticides, a commonly agreed-upon unnatural ingredient, are still allowed and regularly used in products that identify themselves as natural. Without strict lines drawn around the word natural, what can be considered natural by food companies can look very different from what we might imagine ourselves.

“Natural” eggs in production.

If you remember our article on cage-free eggs you’ll recall the living conditions of most egg-laying hens – confinement by the thousands into a single enclosed building. Now I’d be really slow to believe you if you said that the thought of thousands of birds crammed wing to wing with almost no fresh air to breath and nowhere to roam sounded “natural” to you, but as far as the USDA is concerned this is totally within the bounds of what is considered natural. As another example let’s look at SPAM, quite possibly one of the most processed animal foods sold in stores. With a name that stands for Special Processed American Meat, this canned pork product doesn’t instinctually trace back to natural origins. Yet the pigs that are raised for the use of a product like Hormel Natural Choice deli meats share the same lives as those used in SPAM

Our mission at Fulcrum Farm is simple – provide the highest quality nutrition for those who deserve the best, namely our underserved Veteran population. To meet these ends we focus on raising animals, primarily egg-laying hens, in a manner that allows them to live healthy lives and produce truly nourishing food. This looks like allowing our birds to live as natural lives as possible, not because we stand to make financial gains from claiming so (that’s not how charities work), but because we believe in the value of animal welfare, high-quality food, and doing things the “right” way. Our hope is that in sharing our approach, it will help draw the lines between the farmers who are supplying trustworthy products and those who thrive off of misleading labels with murky definitions.

This sort of ambiguity in labeling costs us all. While animals are allowed to be continually subject to completely unfitting environments, we end up paying more money to support a false sense of quality. Again we see the way that packaging and buzzwords can pull our strings and subtly co-opt our values. While some companies are being called out on their claims, until further regulations are put into place, it’s best to drop the term “natural” as a qualifier for anything in your mind. Instead use your all-important resource of attention and choice to decide between labels that have more weight behind them such as “USDA Organic”, “100% Grass-Fed, or any of the other labels we’ve outlined in previous articles. We’ve still got a ways to go before we can place any trust in a food labeled as “natural”. Until then you can trust that in the world of the food industry, misleading labels are as natural as anything. 

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