The term “natural” is a popular marketing term widely used in human food products and supplementation, and now being used more and more for equine and canine feed and supplements.
For many consumers, “natural” on the label means healthier, better, pesticide-free, GMO-free, minimally processed. But in reality, “natural” on a label doesn’t mean any of those things.
According to Consumer Reports: “Under federal labeling rules, the word ‘natural’ means absolutely nothing.” The FDA and the US Department of Agriculture allow companies to use the term “natural” on labels as long as nothing artificial or synthetic has been added.
This broad, mostly non-regulated definition, allows vitamins made from coal tar and petroleum to be called “natural.” It allows companies to call MSM “natural” even though it is made from petroleum by-products and methane gas. Highly processed food ingredients can be called “natural.”
According to Michele Simon, a public health lawyer based in California, this state of confusion is right where the food industry wants us.
The Case of High Fructose Corn Syrup:
Before high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was condemned by consumers and many physicians, products with HFCS in the ingredients were often labeled “natural.” According to the Environmental Working Group, when the sugar industry complained to the FDA, the FDA defended HFCS because it is derived from corn; therefore it is”natural.” Although HFCS started out as a corn, the Corn Refiners Association explains: “while the corn used to produce high fructose corn syrup may or may not have been produced using genetically enhanced corn, existing scientific literature and current testing results indicate that corn DNA cannot be detected in measurable amounts in high fructose corn syrup.”
Say what? Didn’t it start out as corn?
Part of the processing of HFCS includes converting the dextrose sugars in corn syrup into fructose sugars. Although fructose and glucose are in table sugar, they are chemically bonded together and the body must first digest sugar to break these bonds before the body can absorb the fructose and glucose into the blood stream. In contrast, the fructose and glucose in HFCS are blended together so that HFCS doesn’t need to be digested before it is metabolized and absorbed into the bloodstream.
As you might have guessed, there isn’t much of a difference between “natural flavors” and “artificial flavors.” In order to make highly processed foods or supplements that contain laboratory-created ingredients appealing, a whole flavor industry has emerged from the fragrance industry because smell makes up 80 to 90 percent of the sense of taste. Flavorings help increase sales by making mouthwatering tastes. In a 2011 interview with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, two flavor scientists from the company Givaudan, said that one of their goals was making food addictive.
A “natural” flavoring, for instance : natural apple flavor, is considered “natural” by the FDA if a chemical originally found in apples is a component of the flavoring ingredients. Both natural flavoring and artificial flavoring can contain over 100 or more ingredients including solvents, preservatives, and flavor modifiers that often make up 80-90% of the mixture.
An artificial flavor must be comprised of one of 700 FDA-allowed flavoring chemicals or any of the 2000 other chemicals not directly regulated by FDA but sanctioned for use by an industry group The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the US. Interestingly, the natural or artificial emulsifiers, solvents and preservatives in flavor mixtures are called incidental additives and are not required to be disclosed on labels. These solvents can include: ethanol, and propylene glycol.
For organic foods, a “natural flavor” must have been produced without synthetic solvents, carriers, and artificial preservatives. Additives not allowed in natural flavor in organic foods include: propylene glycol, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, mono- and di-glycerides, benzoic acid, polysorbate 80, BHT, BHA, and triacetin.
My personal philosophy on “Natural”:
If a feed, or a supplement, or a food product has “Natural” on the label, I don’t purchase it. Keep in mind that companies use the term “natural” as a marketing tool, not as a description that really defines the ingredients. I have pretty much taken natural out of my lexicon because its real meaning, or what we consumers think of when we hear the word, is not what it means on a label. Instead, I look for specifically certified organic and certified non-GMO products, and the absence of preservatives and flavorings.