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“Natural” Means Nothing: What’s Behind the Food Jargon at Your Grocery Store

“Natural” Means Nothing: What’s Behind the Food Jargon at Your Grocery Store

Imagine yourself strolling down the grocery store aisles, gazing at 30 different types of cereal boxes. You do not know which type of cereal to pick, so you decide to buy the one that has the most appealing packaging.  

That’s what food advertising is: a way to lure you into purchasing a product. Unfortunately, with our dieting-obsessed culture and the essentiality of weight loss for over 60 percent of the population, many food manufacturers have capitalized on your health concerns. Some health claims are true, some are not. Some are regulated, and some actually have no meaning or definition. Remember, food claims are generalized advertising statements, not individualized recommendations for your health. 

Who Regulates our Food? 

The answer is not so simple. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulate all aspects our food supply.

  • FDA: The FDA regulates all foods (except for meat, poultry and eggs), as well as dietary supplements, food additives, bottled water and infant formula. 
  • USDA: The USDA regulates meat, poultry and eggs. 
  • FTC: The FTC regulates food advertising and is meant for consumer protection against fraudulent and deceitful food advertising. 
  • EPA: The EPA regulates tap water from public water supplies.

*Please note that the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates alcohol production, labeling and advertising, as well as establishes import and distribution guidelines for alcohol. 

What Food Marketing Terms Mean, How They’re Regulated & What You Should Do About Them 

  • Natural” 
    • Recognized as “all natural” or “natural.” 
    • Regulation: The term “natural” used on food products has been a topic of controversy for the past four to six years. Many organizations like Consumer Reports petitioned the FDA to legally define the term “natural.” Considering multiple petitions received, the FDA decided to open a public comment period in 2016 resulting in no regulatory changes. 
    • What it Means: The USDA, FTC nor the FDA have established a formal definition of the term “natural” used on food products. However, the FDA does have considerations regarding the term “natural.”
      • According to their website, the “FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.”
      • The USDA examines the term “natural” for meats, poultry and eggs on a case-by-case schedule. It also differentiates “natural” from “organic.” The USDA states that products with the food marketing term “natural” are free from artificial flavors and colors, chemical preservatives, and excessive processing. All meat, poultry and eggs that claim to be “natural” are required to state how, but are not bound to any regulations surrounding farm practices. 
      • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), interestingly, established a rule in 1973 that “natural” foods are minimally processed and do not contain any artificial ingredients. However, they revoked this rule in 1983 and have not re-established regulations for the use of the term “natural” on food products.  
    • What you Should Do:  BE CAUTIOUS. The term “natural” on a food label should be trusted with caution since there is no official definition for it among many regulatory agencies. You can look at the back of the label to see if there are artificial colors (Red 3, Blue 1, FD&C Lakes, Citrus Red 2, Yellow 5, etc.) or other synthetic additives in the ingredients list. Keep in mind that most synthetic food additives are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), so they are exempt from regulation. Needless to say, the area is very gray with the term “natural” regarding food. 


  • Processed & Unprocessed” 
    • Recognized as “unprocessed” or “minimally processed.” 
    • What it Means: The FDA nor the FTC define “processed” or “unprocessed.” The USDA refers to a food being processed if it has experienced a “change of character.” Keep in mind that this refers to absolutely any change that the food has undergone prior to being sold. For example, raw almonds vs. roasted and salted almonds; sliced cheese vs. a block of cheese. Both are considered “processed.” Most people consider “processed” foods as very unhealthy, which is untrue. I have noticed that the “unprocessed” or “minimally processed” claims have spiked in importance in conjunction with the “clean eating” fad. There are different types of food processing that I have adapted from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics below and implemented my own expertise.  
      • Minimally Processed: Examples include fruits and vegetables that have been bagged, chopped and/or sliced for convenience. 
      • Moderately Processed: Examples include canned and frozen fruits and vegetables; canned poultry and fish; pasta sauce; salad dressing; deli meats; crackers; and cereals.  
      • Heavily Processed: Examples include convenience pre-made frozen meals and packaged baked dessert-type goods 

Remember that heavily processed foods are those that have undergone the most change (i.e. ingredients added to; the refining of grains, etc.). To provide an example, there are peanut butters that are minimally processed, containing only peanuts and oil with needed refrigeration and stirring. Simultaneously, there are moderately processed peanut butters that may contain hydrogenated oils and sugar that do not require refrigeration or stirring. 

    • What You Should Do:  BE CAUTIOUS. It is important to understand that the FDA and the FTC do not define these terms, so regulation on usage of this claim is solely based on the ethical marketing practices of the company. You can, however, be more informed by reading nutritional ingredient lists and by using common sense. If a product is pre-frozen and packaged to last two years, chances are that product is more processed than the fresh food item in the deli section that lasts for two days. This is not to say that all processed foods are bad for your health, as mentioned above. If you have any questions about food processing, please add them in the comment section below. 


  • Local” 
    • Recognized as “locally grown,” “locally sourced” or can be seen promotionally state-by state (i.e. “Georgia Grown”).
    • What it Means: Local foods are defined by the USDA as “the direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area.” However, there is no current regulation on the distance from a central point of which would be considered local. The local foods movement preserves the relationship between a community of consumers and local farmers. 
    • What You Should Do:  Since the USDA appears to hold the only regulatory involvement, I would check out the USDA’s database of local foods to learn more and to verify farmers near your area. I am recommending that you use slight caution with this term, as some unethical marketing strategies may try to lure you in by utilizing the label “locally grown” due to the recent movement to buy local. If you are looking to purchase local foods, check out your local farmer’s markets to offer support to your community. 


  • Low,” “Reduced” and “Light”
    • Recognized as “low fat,” “low calorie,” “low sodium,” “low sugar,” “low saturated fat,” or “low cholesterol.” The term “low” can also be relayed by “little” or “low source of.”
    • What it Means: The term “low” on a food label means what you think: The food contains a low amount of a particular nutrient. The nutrient “low” levels below have been defined by the FDA, so be cautious about the use of “low” in front of other nutrients that are not listed here. 
      • Low-fat: 3 grams or less per serving
        • Reduced fat: 25% less fat per serving than the original product 
        • Can also be termed a “Light or Lite” food.
      • Low-saturated fat: 1 gram or less per serving (not more than 15% of calories coming from saturated fat)
        • Reduced saturated fat: 25% less saturated fat per serving than the original product 
      • Low-sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
        • Reduced sodium: 25% less sodium per serving than the original product 
        • Light in sodium: 50% less sodium than the original product
        • Very low-sodium: 35 milligrams or less per serving
        • No salt added or unsalted: additional salt was not added to the product during processing
        • Lightly salted: 50% less sodium added during processing than normally added to the original product  
      • Low-cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less + 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving
        • Reduced cholesterol: 25% less cholesterol per serving than the original product 
      • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
        • Reduced calories: 25% fewer calories than the original product 
        • Can also be termed a “Light or Lite” food. 
      • Low-sugar: not defined
        • No sugar added: sugar or ingredients containing sugar were not added during processing
        • Reduced sugar or Less sugar: 25% less sugar than the original product
    • What You Should Do:  The term “low” is defined and regulated structurally, and you can check actual levels of a nutrient on the label referencing the above information. I would, however, be cautious if you see a “low sugar” term since there is no definition. I would also like you to understand that there is a common misconception that if something is “light or reduced” it is better for you, and the amount you can healthfully consume is more. This is not true, so do not make this assumption that these types of foods are better for weight loss.  


  • High” 
    • Recognized as “high calcium,” “high fiber,” “rich in” or “excellent source of.” 
    • What it Means: If you see this claim, it means that the food contains 20% or more of the Daily Value of a nutrient.
    • What You Should Do:   Keep in mind that the Daily Value references are based on the general, healthy population and are not geared towards individual needs. Simply because a product states “high fiber” may not mean that it would be considered “high” for you if you’re recommended to consume a high fiber diet. Otherwise, you do not have to worry about the validity of this term, but do understand that this is apart of a marketing strategy, not your individualized health strategy. 


  • FreeIncluding “Gluten Free” 
    • Recognized as “fat-free,” “zero fat,” “no fat,” “sugar-free,” “saturated fat-free,” “zero saturated fat,” “calorie-free,” “gluten-free,” “free of gluten,” “no gluten,” and/or “without gluten.” 
    • What it Means: The term “free” on a food label does not mean that the 100 percent of the food is free of that nutrient (except for gluten-free). 
      • Sugar-free: The food contains less than 0.5 grams sugar per serving.
      • Fat-free: The food product contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
      • Calorie-free: The food contains less than five calories per serving.
      • Saturated fat-free: The food contains less than 0.5 grams saturated fat and less than 0.5 grams trans fatty acids per serving. 
      • Cholesterol-free: The food contains less than two milligrams cholesterol per serving.
      • Sodiumfree: The food contains less than five milligrams sodium per serving.
      • Glutenfree and associated terms: The food contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. This applies to foods that are naturally gluten-free and foods that are intentionally made without gluten that would normally contain gluten (i.e. flour or cereal).
    • What You Should Do:  BE CAUTIOUS. The use of “free” in most cases (the exception being with the “gluten-free” term) is truly an advertising ploy because of the structure of the current food label. What I mean is that we may consume more than one serving in one sitting, and this makes the product suddenly not “free” of a particular nutrient. I am curious to see how the use or definition of this label claim will change with the upcoming new food label requirements. See more about the new food label here
    • A word on gluten free: The FDA placed restrictions and regulations in 2013 on the terms “gluten-free,” “free of gluten,” “no gluten,” and/or “without gluten.” Those with celiac disease are required to eat gluten-free and their health depends on it, so these regulations are very important compared to those going gluten-free by choice.


  • Whole” 
    • Recognized as “whole grain” or “whole wheat.” 
    • What it Means: There is no official regulatory definition for the food claim “whole.” It is generally accepted that “whole” foods undergo minimal processing and do not have added ingredients. For food claims like “100 percent whole wheat” or “whole wheat,” you can verify that it is, in fact, whole grain by looking for the whole grain stamp. You can read more in-depth check out information from the Whole Grains Council
    • What You Should Do:  BE CAUTIOUS. The food claim “whole” does not mean that the food is “whole grain” or that it does not contain added ingredients. You can, however, trust that the food is “whole” by displaying the Whole Grain stamp


  • Organic” 
    • Recognized as “100 percent organic,” “organic” or “made with organic ingredients.” 
    • What it Means: The food claim “organic” is governed by the National Organic Program (NOP), which is overseen and regulated by the USDA. Foods regulated by the FDA enforce the organic standards implemented by the USDA. There are specific guidelines that organic foods are required to follow during production and processing. According to the USDA, organic products must:
      • Made without genetic engineering, radiation or sewage sludge 
      • Made with only allowed substances (you can view these here)
      • Overseen by an authorized USDA NOP certified agent 
      • *Operations that sell less than $5,000 yearly are exempt from all organic regulations. 
      • 100 percent organic: The food must use all organic ingredients (salt and water are exceptions). You will see the USDA organic seal on 100 percent organic foods
      • Organic: The food must use a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients. You will see the USDA organic seal on Organic foods.
      • Made with organic ingredients: The food must use between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients. You will not see the USDA organic seal on these products.
    • What You Should Do: In 2015, the organic food industry was worth 35 billion dollars, which is why many manufacturers want to jump on the bandwagon. There is, however, much controversy over the number of third-party certifying agents in the United States and the demand for manufacturers to obtain the USDA seal. This leads to questions like, “Do all manufacturers go through the same certifying process?” or “How does the USDA regulate third-party certifying agencies?” Another misconception about organic foods is that they are somehow contain more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts, which is untrue. Check out the work done by Stanford in late 2012, where a team of experts analyzed over 230 peer-reviewed articles discussing the nutrient content in organic foods compared to non-organic foods. Their findings concluded insignificant differences between organic and non-organic from a macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) perspective. My advice is to  be cautious and research the specific manufacturer you would like to purchase from, and know that the organic label is regulated more than most.

Food claims that you see on foods at your local grocery store may not mean anything, nor have regulations or science to back their relevance. Keep in mind that food claims may be associated with marketing efforts to get you to purchase a product, as sales are often more important to a business than your individual health. If a food is labeled as “light or reduced” or has the claim “calorie or sugar free,” it does not mean that the food is healthier for you than a food that does not display these claims. Specifically, foods that are labeled “light, reduced or free” may not be beneficial for weight loss. In fact, they could be inhibiting your weight loss efforts, as studies have shown that these types of foods could lead to more cravings and overconsumption.

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