What does "Natural" mean anyway?

With so many items on the shelf of your local grocery labeled as “natural” you might think you have a good grasp of the definition or assume there is some sort of standard.  In reality, the FDA historically has declined to offer a definition and anybody can put the word “natural” on any product.


Alarmed?  Well, feel a little better that recently the FDA has asked the grocery industry for input on creating an official definition for the term “natural.”  Problem solved, right?  Well, the fact that the Natural Products Association recently asked for extension for providing feedback suggests that there are many ideas on how to define the term.

To understand the debate, let’s consider a simple food that many of us probably ate today:  bread.   Surely wholesome and 100% natural bread is and should be readily available.  But what is so natural about cultivating a wheat plant into its current form over thousands of years, pulverizing its berry into flour, mixing it with water, salt and then forcing it to rise with added yeast?  What about putting that concoction in an oven and cooking it?  Much to my disappointment there are no bread trees with perfect little rolls forming at the ends of branches.

But, if we think about it, isn’t our ability to control our food sources and improve them through cooking and cultivation a large part of what defines us as human?  I don’t think any of us would argue that merely cooking a food changes it from natural to artificial.  A baked apple seems natural and so does the bread from our example above.  Those are easy, but what about cultivation vs genetically modified?  

The debate becomes tricky because we want to accept human intervention as natural, but not too much intervention.  We are trying to pick the line that when crossed the food and other products can no longer be called “natural”.

We invite your comments below!

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