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Nature Valley Bar
Photo: theimpulsivebuy on Flickr

What do Froot Loops, 7Up, Cheetos, chickens raised on a Perdue factory farm, and Lay’s Honey Mustard potato chips all have in common? They all carry claims that they’re made naturally—sort of. 

What does that mean? Like the word, “natural,” itself, not much. So what if Froot Loops have “natural fruit flavors” or Cheetos, a product neither God nor Mother Nature herself could ever have conceived of, is made with “all natural oil.” The food industry has warped the word “natural” to its own liking.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, natural ingredients “are derived from natural sources (e.g., soybeans and corn provide lecithin to maintain product consistency; beets provide beet powder used as food coloring). Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients.”

The FDA goes on to say that some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially, such as vitamin C or ascorbic acid (an antioxidant).

Where does that leave us? A little wiser, but still mired in a cloud of vagueness, which benefits the food companies that want to market their products as healthy or wholesome. 7UP, for instance, used to call itself “All Natural,” but one lawsuit later, the soda’s marketing was changed to “100% Natural Flavors.” Does the average consumer appreciate the difference? Do you?

Nature Valley, the makers of a variety of granola bars, offers perhaps the perfect illustration of how the word’s meaning can be stretched. The company’s labeling uses terms such as “100% natural” and “100% naturally crunchy,” while the brand name suggests that the company has got farmers tilling wholesome grains in a field somewhere. Yet Nature Valley’s Sweet and Salty Nut bars contain high maltose corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup and fructose. That’s natural?

Most of us are inured to this debate, already aware that the word means about as much as “real” does, when it comes to food marketing. How can we not become cynical when lobby interests make the claim that even high fructose corn syrup is natural? That’s what they do, because it’s derived from corn, ignoring the very unnatural process it takes along the way.

How I personally choose to navigate the meaning of the word, natural, is to ignore it entirely. Instead, I look for the word organic, a term that actually means something. Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, which led to the National Standards on Organic Agricultural Production and Handling rule in 2000. When a food is labeled organic, it actually has been deemed so through a federally approved accreditation process that regulates the food so that it has no genetic engineering, specific kinds of feed, rules for handling of livestock and so on.

Do “organic” foods tend to cost more than “natural” ones? Of course they do. That’s because you’re getting what you pay for.