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What Does “Natural” Mean?

Posted on December 15, 2014. on SplendaLiving.com
Guest Blogger: Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN

I have been compensated for my time by McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog With Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.

What one word do you think sells the most food in the U.S. when used on a food label? Here’s a hint: It’s not organic, healthy or protein. If you guessed “natural” you are correct! The food industry sold nearly $41 billion worth of food last year labeled with the word natural. Only claims about fat content were higher, but more terms were included in that category.

What exactly does “natural” mean when we see it on a food label? The dictionary says it means “existing in nature” or “not man-made,” but I see it printed across brightly colored boxes, bags and cans of food in the middle of the store containing products that you’ll never see “growing spontaneously, without being planted or tended by human hands,” which is another definition of natural!

As it turns out, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not come up with an official definition for what “natural” means other than objecting to its use on foods with “added colors, artificial flavors and synthetic substances.” That is why you can find it on so many foods that are highly processed and full of salt, sugar and fat - they all make the grade as “natural” ingredients.

Are Food Additives Natural?

Another term whose meaning is a bit ambiguous is “food additive.” Most people have a negative impression of the term when they hear it or believe a food is not “natural” if it contains food additives, but that simply isn’t true.

The FDA considers any substance that becomes a part of a food during processing or the making of the food to be a food additive. These substances can be derived from animal, vegetable, or manmade sources. For example, the vitamin D added to milk and vinegar used to pickle cucumbers are food additives. So are any ingredients used to prevent spoilage, maintain the desired consistency, or improve the appearance of a food. If you want to see them all, there are over 3000 food additives listed in the database directory Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS) on FDA.gov.

Are Low-Calorie Sweeteners Food Additives?

The FDA uses the terms “high-intensity sweeteners” and “nonnutritive sweeteners” for what I call low-calorie sweeteners and others commonly refer to as sugar substitutes. No matter what you call them, the FDA either categorizes them as food additives or generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredients.

Of the eight low-calorie sweeteners currently on the market in the U.S., only stevia and monk fruit extract are GRAS, while acesulfame potassium, advantame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose are food additives.

Either way, all of these ingredients must satisfy FDA’s rigorous safety standards to become part of our diets. You can find a helpful infographic illustrating how the two approval processes work here.

If you’d like to know more about how ingredients like sucralose (the sweetening ingredient in SPLENDA® Sweeteners) are approved, be sure to check my other posts on the subject: How are Low-Calorie Sweetener Ingredients Approved? and Is SPLENDA® Brand Sweetener (Sucralose) Safe? Authorities We Can Trust.

Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, “The Everyday RD,” is an author and nutrition consultant who has headed the nutrition services department in a large teaching hospital and maintained a private practice where she provided diet therapy to individuals and families. With more than 30 years of experience, Robyn is motivated by the opportunity to help people make the best eating decisions for their everyday diet. She believes that choosing what to eat should not be a daily battle and aims to separate the facts from the fiction so you can enjoy eating well.

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