As a result of innate curiosity as a young child of four years old, I can remember watching Julia Child’s The French Chef and being absolutely fascinated. I am unclear why, like my childhood friends, I was not watching Saturday morning cartoons; moreover, there I was watching my family’s little black and white television, fidgeting and exclaiming, “Bon Appétit!” I trace my passion for food, food quality, food safety, culinary cleanliness, and an overall joy around food preparation back to Julia Child. The fact that both my Grandparents’ homes were always full of items cooked from scratch only fueled my innate instinct to gravitate towards the domestic arts. My Grandmother, Dorijean Graham, was a domestic goddess of the highest order and she deserves the majority of the credit for shaping me into the food-passionate adult that I have become today. My uncle exposed me to healthy eating, exercise, and fitness at a very young age which propelled me into eating nutritionally dense foods. From those foundational experiences, growing up, I avidly consumed classes in college focusing on nutritional science and put myself through an undergraduate culinary program. From there, I have been expanding my culinary knowledge that has propelled me to start the San Jose Urban Farming Meetup via meetup.com and become the founder Yummy Tummy Farms. I give you dear reader all of this background because sometimes, even with my education and experience, I feel embattled by words that have no official definition, such as natural. Do you know the definition of natural as it relates to food?
For me, natural is a word used to describe food that is produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, synthetic additives, synthetic hormones, and synthetic preservatives, right? I thought I knew the definition of natural until I went to the USDA website to get confirmation of my definition of natural. I entered, “definition of natural” into their site search tool, a couple of additional clicks, and was directed to a document from 2006. This document was a call for public comment on the definition of the word natural, ironically prompted by a petition the USDA received from Hormel Foods. What could possibly go wrong?
According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) summary, the Hormel Foods’ petition (the petition) goes on to question how many of the commonplace food processing techniques routinely used in 2006, as opposed to 1982 when the policy on labeling foods as natural was originally established, would be allowed on a food product and still be eligible to be labeled natural in 2006? This seems like a reasonable inquiry to me, but hang on, it’s about to get strange. The petition goes on to question if chlorine use in poultry chillers, high pressure meat processing, and modified atmosphere packaging could qualify as natural meat products? Hormel goes on to claim that other large food processors may be gaming the system to take undue advantage through labeling food as natural when in fact they fail the previously existing definition of natural. Hormel Foods goes on to question what is consumers understanding of words like, “minimally processed” and “artificial and synthetic” and “preservatives” especially with respect to meat production? I continued searching and found a USDA Material Working Group paper from 2009 that had a purpose of defining what a “synthetic substance” was and as part of that work had to define nonsynthetic wherein this USDA Material Working Group used natural as a synonym for nonsynthetic. After an hour of searching, I found no official definition for natural on the USDA website.
I ended my search at the FDA website where I found this, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
I gave you my definition of what natural is, what is your definition of natural? Knowing that there is no official definition for natural, how is this new information going to affect how you shop and what you eat?