What is Natural?

The demand for foods produced more “naturally” arose out of a response to the introduction of synthetic pesticides and herbicides in the 1940s and the resulting movement toward organic farming.  The word “natural” was, and still is, a marketing term intended to signal that those foods and products provide a more nutritious, healthier alternative to conventionally produced food products for humans, animals, and the planet.  Other terms included whole foods and later, clean foods, along with organic, all of which developed specific meanings and standards for early industry farmers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and their consumer customers. 

Whole foods describe the whole food in its natural state; or a complex food source as found in nature with all or most of its nutritional components.  Whole foods contain no synthetic isolations; it is not adulterated or modified with flavor enhancers or artificial colors.  Whole foods require minimal processing, including no removal of nutritional components.

As the demand for whole foods or ingredients sourced from whole foods grew, the term natural foods came to mean the whole food or whole food source.  The definition included no adulteration after harvest, not modified; minimally processed to retain its natural nutrient complex; no objectionable ingredients added after harvest or in processing; no preservatives, artificial colors, or flavors; but not necessarily organically grown.  That said, the term “natural” does not have an official or legal definition in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, except for its use with meat and poultry products where natural meat products are defined as:

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. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Over the years, manufacturing became more complex and the range of packaged natural products grew.  As a result, the term clean foods emerged, encompassing the standards set out in whole, natural, and organic foods. 

  • No artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors, flavors, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, drug residues, or growth hormones.
  • May include such products as water without bacteria and chemicals or poultry without antibiotics or cattle without rBGH. 
  • No irradiation, ripening agents, or fumigants.  Not bleached or bromated. 
  • Processed, packaged, transported, and stored to retain maximum nutritional value and positive environmental impact. 
  • Processed so it might be picked at the peak of ripeness and flavor and transported with freshness in mind. 
  • The handling of clean foods may include refrigerated storage and transportation and recycled or recyclable packaging materials.

Why this matters:

The term “natural” has no official or legal definition, except for meat and poultry products as defined by the US Department of Agriculture.   The word “natural” is liberally used as a marketing term to identify products that are made with minimal processing, free from artificial or synthetic additives, harmful properties, and has been produced and packaged to maintain the maximum nutritional value and a positive environmental impact.

The explosive growth of the word natural has caused its use to become more and more controversial, and as a result customers and natural product store staff make it a point to learn about the source, purpose and composition of many ingredients to determine if a product labeled “natural” fits into a customer’s acceptable parameters.  One item labeled as natural may not be deemed natural enough to other customers.  

Organic Foods

The earliest leaders in the movement defined organic foods as those that were grown, processed, and packed according to standards that were eventually codified in the Organic Foods Act of 1990.  Certified, organically grown food protects the environment of the farm.  Organic certification of the processor and packer protects the foods from adulteration once it has left the farm.  The USDA created the National Organic Program in 2001 after several years of national hearings and on October 21, 2002, the program was officially implemented. 

“Health Foods” – Herbal Medicines & Nutritional Supplements

Plants and herbs have been used for health and as medicines since recorded time.  In the 19th century, chemists began to analyze the properties of plants and extract and modify the active ingredients.  Over the decades, chemists began to make their own versions of these ingredients and the pharmaceutical industry was born.  In spite of this evolution, however, the use of herbal medicines never died, and in the meantime, scientists were continuing their discovery of the properties of food and the connection between the absence of those nutrients in the human body and disease.   By 1912 these special compounds were named vitamins

It wasn’t long after the discovery of vitamins that the first “health food” stores and product manufacturers began to emerge, using the term “health food” for specific foods claimed to be especially beneficial to health.   Early health and wellness pioneers opened stores that sold bulk, whole foods (grains, beans, rice, flours, nuts, etc., ) alongside vitamins and minerals and educated their consumer customers about the health benefits of clean foods and nutritional supplements in a world of pesticides, highly processed foods and artificial food additives and preservatives.  During the 1920s and 1930s many of the pioneer companies in the industry, some of whom are still in business today, were in full operation.  The American Health Foods Association was formed by these early pioneers in 1936, and in 1938 the first regulation of health food products was passed by Congress in the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which established labeling and daily minimum requirements for vitamins and minerals and assigned oversight responsibilities to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  

Over the ensuing decades, researchers continued to discover a broad array of nutrients found in foods and worked with manufacturers to create formulas that went well beyond vitamins and minerals.   By the end of the 20th century, two out of every five people in the U.S. were taking dietary supplements and the terms health food and natural foods became synonymous.   Dietary supplements were regulated by the FDA until 1994 when the landmark Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed, which expanded the category of dietary supplements to include substances such as "Ginseng, fish oils, enzymes, glandular products such as hormones and steroids, and mixtures of these” and made dietary supplements a new category of regulation within the framework of food and separate from drugs. 

Why this matters:

Over the decades health foods has come to mean packaged foods and nutritional supplements that are

  • processed using whole food sources
  • free from artificial or synthetic ingredients
  • able to claim healthful benefits due to the nutrient properties retained during production

Customers who shop in “health food” and natural food stores are looking for healthier food options and the nutritional support they may need due to the absence of those nutrients in their diet.  Conventionally grown and processed foods are exposed to harmful pesticides and other synthetic chemicals that may be harmful to the body or deprive the body of the necessary nutrients for a more healthy life.

Understanding Minimal Processing & Added Ingredients

For centuries, human beings have been “processing” foods to slow the growth of harmful microorganisms that spoil food.   Drying, salting, fermenting, marinating, canning and freezing are all ways of processing food to discourage and retard the growth of naturally occurring bacteria.   Some processing methods (e.g. cooking) actually make food free of microorganisms. 

In the modern era, processed foods have come to mean food found in boxes, cans, and bags in the center of the grocery store and, in some cases, the freezer.  Fresh soybeans, eaten directly out of the pod, are in their natural state and easily recognized as a soybean.  Once they are processed they can take on many forms, not necessarily resembling their original form, from tofu to soy sauce.   In order to make these packaged foods conform to a manufacturing process, taste good, look good and last a long time on the shelf, many unrecognizable ingredients including additives, flavorings, preservatives, sweeteners, thickeners, colorings, and other substances, are added to the product.   These ingredients may come from whole food natural sources, or they may be artificial, synthetic, lab-created, ingredients.  Processed foods may be labeled as “all-natural” because they do not contain any artificial or synthetic ingredients.

While many of the natural and synthetic ingredients serve the same purpose, there are differences between them and how they interact in the body.  Chemical additives may be harmful and many remain in our system after normal digestion and therefore must be removed from the body by the liver.  Also, many synthetic food chemicals are petroleum byproducts, causing problems in the health of our bodies, as well as the environment.

Examples of Natural & Synthetic Ingredients Serving the Same Purpose

Processing Purpose



Preservatives (delay spoilage)

salt, vinegar, spices, rosemary oil, vitamin E

sodium nitrite, sulfur dioxide, calcium propionate, sorbic acid


turmeric, annatto

Yellow #5, Red #50


salt, spices, vanilla

artificial flavors (>1600 in the U.S.)

Emulsifiers (prevent separation)


mono- and diglycerides

Oil Extraction

cold-pressed, expeller pressed

chemical solvents (hexane)

Flour Milling

hammer or stone mill, unrefined

refined (germ and bran removed), bleached

Highly processed foods along with synthetic ingredients often decrease the nutritional benefits of the food or actually alter the food in a way that is harmful to the consumer.   For example, hydrogenated oils increase shelf life but harm the human body, contributing to heart disease and obesity.  Customers (and store staff) look at the ingredient list on packaged foods to see how much processing has occurred and if they recognize the ingredients.   The longer the ingredient list, the more processed a food is likely to be; containing ingredients that people can neither pronounce nor find in their kitchen. 

Although there are no national regulations governing the use of the word “natural” on products, reputable manufacturers in the industry prohibit the use of certain ingredients in their products.  Over the decades, consumers have been educated about the harmful effects of these ingredients and avoid them in the foods they buy. 

Prohibited Ingredients in Reputable Foods Labeled Natural

Artificial Colors

Artificial Flavors

Artificial Ingredients

Bleached Flour


Growth Hormones

Hydrogenated Oils

Irradiated Ingredients

Modified Food Starch

Mono & Diglycerides



Product Testing on Animals

Refined Sugar

Solvent-Extracted Oils


Words to Remember


Foods that are free from artificial or synthetic additives, harmful properties, have been processed, packaged, and handled to maintain the maximum nutritional value and a positive environmental impact.


Broadly defined, health food are products that have specific claims to being especially beneficial to health, including vitamins, minerals, and nutritional supplements.


Medicines and remedies using plants as sources of ingredients that do not contain synthetic ingredients or additives.


Processing raw materials into packaged foods with minimal steps, using natural (not artificial or synthetic) ingredients, retaining healthy nutrients, and avoiding unacceptable ingredients that may be harmful.


Products made from the whole food itself or a whole food source for an ingredient, which has been minimally processed and retains all or most of the nutrient value.


Of, relating to, or derived from living matter.


The whole food in its natural state that has not been modified Natural Foods – products made from the whole food itself or a whole food source for an ingredient.

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