A quick google search for the term will bring some mixed results. From the wikipedia definition to articles on USDA, FDA regulations and various websites and brands. The term keeps being used in food labeling and marketing with a variety of definitions, most of which are vague.
“Natural foods” are often assumed to be foods that are not processed, or do not contain any food additives, or do not contain particular additives such as hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, preservatives, or flavorings that were not originally in the food.
Natural: Food labeled "natural," according to the USDA definition, does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. Regulations are fairly lenient for foods labeled "natural.”
But what does it really mean when you see in the word Natural on a food product you buy?
Not much really.
The word Natural has been part of recent lawsuits to big CPG companies because it can be misleading to the consumer. But, interestingly enough, it is the one consumers find the most important, both for items they buy at the grocery store and in foodservice. More than 40% find they are influenced by products labeled "natural" at the grocery store, while about 20% find it influential on a menu.
Consumer Reports found 81% of consumer think it should mean no artificial ingredients were used even though that's rarely the case. “Just because something is artificial, doesn't mean it's harmful and vice versa, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe.” In meat and according to the USDA, “natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives or other artificial ingredients, and they should be “minimally processed.” However, this label does not tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if antibiotics or hormones were used, or other aspects of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”
Finally, The FDA, which regulates non-meat, egg, and poultry labeling, has already declared that it’s aware that the “natural” label is potentially misleading, and called for public comment back in 2015 to hopefully find some solution to the problem.
It is important that shoppers become aware of ambiguous "healthy" terms like this and request better labeling standards and enforced transparency by manufacturers and regulators alike. Living in a COVID-19 era where consumers are putting their health top of mind when deciding which food brands to choose from, might be a good opportunity to revaluate ingredients, packaging and practices to improve products for everyone. Better Products = Better Sales.
*Check out this useful link to some of the most common food labels and what they mean!