What Does “Natural” Mean in Foods?

There is currently no regulation of the use of the word “natural” on food and beverage labels, making it challenging to understand the true meaning of the term. Both the FDA and USDA have loose definitions for natural ingredients in place that may serve as guidelines until more explicit rules arise. Join us as we discuss these definitions and labeling guidelines for natural flavoring ingredients in the US, including a short comparison between natural, organic, and whole foods.
A Definition of Natural Ingredients From the FDA
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has faced several citizen petitions over the last few years urging them to define the term “natural” and even prohibit its use on food labels.
While they have not formally defined the term, the FDA has a longstanding policy in place that defines natural foods as those containing “nothing artificial or synthetic… that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”1 The definition excludes all artificial colorants regardless of their source. Their policy focuses on ingredients and does not make provision for food production or processing methods.
Comparing Food Marketing Terms: Natural vs Organic vs Whole Foods
The FDA’s definition of “natural” allows for synthetic processing mechanisms during food production, and many highly-processed foods may be considered natural based on their ingredients alone. Whole foods, however, are generally defined as foods we eat in their purest form as found in nature with little to no refinement. Whole foods include all raw fruit, vegetables, seeds, grains, fish, eggs, and meat, regardless of their origin.
While natural and whole foods are only loosely defined, certified-organic foods are strictly regulated in the United States.
Certified-organic products must meet strict sourcing and production standards set out and governed by the USDA. These standards prohibit the use of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, artificial additives, antibiotics, and growth hormones during food production. Organic food may not be genetically modified or exposed to ionizing radiation. These regulations aim to protect biodiversity, animal welfare, and non-renewable resources.
Labeling Guidelines for Foods Using Natural Flavorings
The FDA provides guidelines for labeling flavoring ingredients in processed foods. A flavoring ingredient’s primary function is to add flavor to the food, and it may not hold significant nutritional value.
You may include the term “natural flavoring” on your product label if your flavoring ingredients, such as extracts, essential oils, distillates, and oleoresins, are of natural origin. The FDA defines these natural flavoring origins as “spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
When shipping food to a manufacturer or processor, you must list the individual flavoring ingredients rather than using the term “natural flavoring”. However, if your product contains a blend of flavors without a recognizable primary flavor, you may declare it using an appropriate generic term, such as “fruit punch”.
If a flavoring ingredient contains solely natural flavors, you may choose to include or omit the word “natural” in the shipping label list, for example: “banana flavor” or “natural banana flavor”. If your flavoring contains a combination of artificial and natural flavors, it must be noted on the label. All artificial flavors must be listed as such.
The term “natural” on food and beverage labels simply informs consumers that the ingredients within the product originate from nature. The FDA guidelines can help you choose appropriate additives for natural products as a food producer or manufacturer.
Advanced Biotech is a trusted supplier of high-quality natural flavoring and aromatic ingredients for the food industry. Please contact us for more information.

1 https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling