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What does ‘natural’ mean?

What does 'natural' really mean when used on processed and pre-packaged foods?

If you look up the word 'natural' in the dictionary, it seems pretty clear what it means: 'produced by nature' or 'as is normal, or to be expected'. But when we find the word on processed foods, what does it really mean? I can't pick a muesli bar from a tree!

The word 'natural' on packaging can mean many different things. So if you're attracted by the word, take a moment to stop and find out if it's telling you what you expected about the product.

  • In some food categories it just means it's not flavoured: think yoghurt or potato chips.
  • Juice companies have agreed that on a juice label 'natural' means it does not contain food additives (unless they are natural components) or have any part removed or changed.
  • In other categories it means that the (added) colours and flavours are from natural sources, ie plant sources, rather than being synthetic or man-made: you might see this on confectionery.
  • You may see things like 'a natural source of omega-3' or 'contains natural isoflavones'. That means the omega-3 or the isoflavones occur naturally in that food; they haven't been added. As opposed to 'contains natural omega-3', which could have been added!

Some foods are described as 'natural' to imply that all their ingredients are… well… natural!

But there are no rules about what it means.

If you saw something described as a 'natural breakfast cereal', would you expect it to contain yoghurt compound-coated sultanas? Or preservative? Probably not, but this is one example we found.

Your best bet: read the ingredients list. The more ingredients you recognise, the more 'natural' it's likely the product is.

First published: Nov 2007



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