Are You All Natural?

All Natural ?

Fairtrade, 100% Organic, All Natural, Salmon Safe, CSA Sustainable Forest Management. All of those sound great and are the sort of labels that many of us look for on the food and other products we buy. But, what do all of those labels REALLY mean? Food labeled USDA Organic is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. On the other hand, a, 'All Natural' label doesn't mean much at all.

Since the USDA has not defined the term 'Natural' manufacturers and advertisers have free rein to label any product 'natural' regardless of its ingredients. Without any guidelines for what is 'Natural' foods containing hydrogenated soybean oil, soya lecithin, cocoa processed with alkali, autolyzed yeast extract, xantham gum and gum arabic and tocopherol have been labeled been labeled 'All Natural'. If you're curious, Tocopherol is "a class of chemical compounds of which many have vitamin E activity". Strangely, that doesn't sound very natural to me, especially given that the most inexpensive type of tocopherol - Fully synthetic vitamin E, "dl-alpha-tocopherol", is derived from petroleum products.

If you want to find out what is really in the food you eat and the products you use - the best place to start is by reading by the list of ingredients. Michael Pollan's rule to 'Avoid food products that are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than five in number, or that include D) High-Fructose Corn Syrup.' is a good one. As well, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a great resources on food safety and eating green. is another good reference for researching what various eco-labels actually mean.

Of course, you can always shop at your local Farmer's Market or get food from a CSA and avoid much of this labeling confusion. But, some foods are very hard to source locally and shopping at a supermarket is difficult to avoid. I know it seems like a lot of work to read all of the ingredients and research every label. But, as the saying goes, 'You are what you eat' and I don't want to be made of 'petroleum-derived' tocopherol. Somehow, it doesn't feel natural.

More Info:

Chicago Tribune - Organic vs. natural a source of confusion in food labeling

USDA National Organic Program

USDA - Organic Labeling and Marketing Information

Center for Science in the Public Interest


The Omnivore's Solution - a review of 'In Defense of Food'