What constitutes “natural”?

22 Nov

By: Joycelyne Lai

North American consumers can choose from a seemingly infinite selection of foods and health products. Among current consumer trends there has been a shift towards so-called natural products, since processed foods are sometimes considered to be “unnatural.” Although this category of products has shown significant growth in the market, what does natural really mean?

The words: “Nature”, “natural”, “Mother Nature”, “Nature’s Way”are terms often misused on labels and in advertisements (CFIA, 2012). According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), a natural food or food ingredient is not expected to contain (or to ever have contained) an added vitamin, mineral, artificial flavouring agent or food additive (CFIA, 2012). Additionally, foods or food ingredients submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical, or biological state should not be described as “natural” (CFIA, 2012).

The use of the term natural may also lead to confusion in the area of natural health products (NHP). NHPs are a subcategory of over-the-counter drugs that are sold without a prescription and are defined as: vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, traditional medicines such as traditional Chinese medicines, probiotics, and other products like amino acids and essential fatty acids (Health Canada, 2012). NHP are usually sold in capsule, pill, tablet or liquid form and do not include conventional foods. They are often made from plants, but can also be made from animals, microorganisms and marine sources. A 2010 Ipsos-Reid survey showed that 73% of Canadians regularly use NHPs (Health Canada, 2012). While the word natural may suggest that these products are less processed and therefore healthier and safer than drugs, some NHPs are in fact synthesized to be equivalent to naturally occurring compounds and may not be from the original source (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2010).

An example of the use of the term natural on food product labels can be seen in the cured meat category. Over the past 10 years, consumer demands for foods manufactured without the direct addition of chemical preservatives including nitrates/nitrites has led to the development of so-called naturally cured meat products (Sullivan et al., 2012). These products are designed to meet the regulatory requirements for natural and organic processed meats by using modern technology in place of the age-old process of curing meats (Sebranek et al., 2012). A concentrated celery extract was developed that inherently contains a high nitrate concentration and innovative processors have adopted this new technique to manufacture processed meat products labelled as natural. This process leads to typical cured meat properties, including preservation for safety, but a cleaner ingredient listing on the label.

Although currently there is a grey area when it comes to food product labelling, the CFIA is working to minimize confusion surrounding the use of the term natural. As a consumer, there are ways to avoid confusion; including reading ingredient lists and being aware of package labelling guidelines may help. It might also help us to remember that sometimes, the most nutritious natural foods come with no product labels at all!

Image courtesy of Sharon Angela Lai.


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2010). Food vs. Natural Health Products. Canada: Government of Canada.

Canadian Food Inspection Agency. (2012). Chapter 4 Composition, Quality, Quantity and Origin claims. Sections 4.7-4.19. Canada: Government of Canada.

Health Canada. (2012). Drugs and Health Products. Canada: Government of Canada.

Sebranek, J. G., Jackson-Davis, A. L., Myers, K. L., & Lavieri, N. A. (2012). Beyond celery and starter culture: Advances in natural/organic curing processes in the united states. Meat Science, 92(3), 267-273. doi: http://dx.doi.org.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/10.1016/j.meatsci.2012.03.002

Sullivan, G. A., Jackson-Davis, A. L., Niebuhr, S. E., Xi, Y., Schrader, K. D., Sebranek, J. G., & Dickson, J. S. (2012). Inhibition of listeria monocytogenes using natural antimicrobials in no-nitrate-or-nitrite-added ham. Journal of Food Protection, 75(6), 1071-6.


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