Natural foods and all natural foods are widely used terms in food labeling and marketing with a variety of definitions, most of which are vague. The term is often assumed to imply foods that are minimally processed and whose ingredients are all natural products (in the chemist's sense of that term), thus conveying an appeal to nature. But the lack of standards in most jurisdictions means that the term assures nothing. In some countries, the term “natural” is defined and enforced. In others, such as the United States, it is not enforced.
“Natural foods” are often assumed to be foods that are minimally processed, or do not contain any food additives, or do not contain particular additives such as hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings that were not originally in the food. In fact, many people (63%) when surveyed showed a preference for products labeled "natural" compared to the unmarked counterparts, based on the common belief (86% of polled consumers) that the term "natural" indicated that the food does not contain any artificial ingredients. The terms are variously used and misused on labels and in advertisements.
The international Food and Agriculture Organization’s Codex Alimentarius does not recognize the term “natural” but does have a standard for organic foods.
Fundamentally, almost all foodstuffs are derived from the natural products of plants and animals
In the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency has published criteria for the use of several terms in food labeling. The guidance, in general, restricts the use of natural to foods that have “ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man.” Natural flavorings are explicitly defined by separate laws.
There are different standards for various types of food, such as dairy products. It also gives standards for some food processing techniques, such as fermentation or pasteurization. The standard explicitly rules out "foods derived from novel processes, GM or cloning."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency restricts the use of "natural" to foods that have not been significantly altered by processing and gives examples of processes that do or do not significantly alter food. This includes two specific additional requirements:
In Israel, natural ingredients are defined as part of the Labelling of Prepacked Food Standard (Israeli Standard SI 1145, which is legally binding).
The standard offers a list of 33 processes which are allowed in natural ingredients, all of which are physical treatments and not chemical modifications. These include blending, cleaning, extrusion, freezing, drying, etc.
A specific ingredient can be called "natural" if it didn't go through any processing except for the listed ones. The whole food can be called "natural" if the food is not a blend of foods (even if they are all natural), has no added ingredients, and underwent only the specified processes.
In the United States, there are laws/regulations and agencies to protect the consumer when purchasing food products, specifically dedicated to the packaging and labeling. Some laws and organizations include the Nutrition and Labeling Education Act, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
FSIS is a subsection of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is tasked with the responsibility of "ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged." The USDA partnered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop and issue regulations in appropriate usage of "natural" labels; yet, the FDA does not have specific rules for “natural" labeling. It advised on their website "the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
Furthermore, the FDA has not developed any rules or regulations on the defining features of what qualifies a product as "natural." The FDA does reference a definition of "natural" in their informal policy (Ref. 53) that defines "natural" as "nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there."
The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits labeling that is false or misleading. The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has a standard for organic food. As of August 2005, the USDA had a section governing "natural claims" in its Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book; the USDA's regulatory jurisdiction applies only to meat, poultry, and egg products.
Because there are few regulations governing the labeling of "natural" foods, manufacturers can include ingredients that may not be considered natural by some consumers.
The poultry industry has been criticized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for labeling chicken meat "all natural" after it has been injected with saline solution up to 25% of its weight. There is no legal recourse to prevent this labeling.
Although there are few legal U.S. definitions for natural foods, there are unofficial or informal definitions, none of which is applied uniformly to foods labeled "natural".