If you ask prominent nutrition experts, the term "natural" has no clear definition when it comes to food products. What’s more, several scientists would prefer the word was dropped altogether. That’s unlikely any time soon.
"Because it sells, food companies are slapping it on anything," said Julie Miller Jones, a food safety and nutrition professor at College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. "And consumers believe natural equals nutritious. Actually, it’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland. It means what I want it to mean."
Increasingly to consumers, the term natural means organic, said A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif. Partly as a result of this confusion, she said, the appeal of organic foods is no longer growing. "If you look what’s going on right now, natural foods are outselling organic four to one," she said. "When you ask people to define natural and define organic, you get exactly the same thing. In 2009, organic equals natural. That wasn’t the case in the past."
Sales growth of organic products slowed to 4% in the final weeks of 2008, versus a figure close to 20% for the last several years, she said.
While the Food and Drug Administration has established rules for the term "natural" with regard to colorants and flavors, no such decisions have been made defining a natural food.
"It has been debated for a number of years, but the F.D.A. does not have pre-market authority on advertising or what is printed on the label," said Roger Clemens, director of analytical research at the USC School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles.
Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission does not have authority for premarket approval, but the agency may monitor such advertising through the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.
Mr. Clemens noted that the U.S.D.A. has leaned toward a definition of natural foods with "minimally processed" as the fundamental principle. He is highly skeptical about prospects for consensus in part because extreme views on the subject have gained considerable attention.
"Is drying natural or not?" he asked. "Raisins are dried out in the sun. Are they natural? Some would say no. What if you roast an ear of corn? Some would say that is not natural. What if you process an orange to remove dirt and sanitize the outer layer of skin? You have groups with those kinds of extreme views.
"Some form of processing is needed to assure nutritional quality and protect safety of food in commerce. But some people would debate that."
While raisins and roasted corn are at the periphery of the "what is natural?" debate, high-fructose corn syrup stands at the eye of the storm.
The corn refining industry takes the position that HFCS is natural.
"Under F.D.A. rules, ‘natural’ means that ‘nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food,’" the Corn Refiners Association said.
Others disagree. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which disputes the view that HFCS is more harmful than other added sugars, said calling HFCS "natural" is deceptive.
"HFCS starts out as cornstarch, which is chemically or enzymatically degraded to glucose (and some short polymers of glucose)," the C.S.P.I. said. "Another enzyme is then used to convert varying fractions of glucose into fructose. High-fructose corn syrup just doesn’t exist in nature."
Neither do many popular packaged food products, such as bread, ice cream or cheese, many of which are labeled "all natural."
The corn refiners make this point, noting that using enzymes in the production process no more disqualifies HFCS as a natural product than it does cheese, also produced through an enzymatic process.
Mr. Clemens said the F.D.A. has, with qualifications, sided with the C.R.A., saying in 2008 that if HFCS is processed in a way in which enzymes don’t come in direct contact with the syrup, it is natural.
"Others debate that conclusion," he added.
Yet another wrinkle, with potentially far-reaching ramifications, emerged last month when two district courts in California ruled that states have the right to declare use of the term "natural" misleading and that no federal preemption exists for such claims.
The courts ruled in favor of consumer class-action lawsuits challenging whether products containing HFCS may be marketed as "all natural."
In the meat industry, the traditional guidance of "minimally processed" was expanded in January when the U.S.D.A. issued a voluntary standard.
Under the new standard for "naturally raised," livestock used for producing meat and meat products should be raised entirely without growth promotants or antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control) and are fed animal byproducts.
Ms. Sloan said the meat standard may presage progress throughout the food industry.
Amid the debate, food ingredient companies continue to develop and bring to market products aimed at helping food companies introduce natural products.
One example is SunOpta Ingredients, Chelmsford, Mass. The company recently introduced three thoroughly modern functional ingredients in which "natural" is viewed as a significant additional attraction — Barley Balance as well as MultiFiber 1100 and MultiFiber 1210, fiber blends.
Rajen S. Mehta, a director of fiber applications at SunOpta, said fiber intake ranks high on the list of benefits consumers want in food products.
"Natural is important, too," he said. "They want to get closer to nature. It’s part of the healthy eating spectrum on which they are focused."
If the term "natural" is to be used in the future, Mr. Clemens said the best possible approach would be to bring together key stakeholders — consumer groups, agencies, ingredient makers and food companies.
"They need to sit down at the table to decide what is natural," he said. "There may not be a single definition for natural, but I still think what we need to do is work together to provide consistency and predictability."
At the end of the day, though, Mr. Clemens said the best possible outcome may be no longer using the term at all. When it comes to healthfulness, there are several products in which more processing is demonstrably better than less.
"At this time, scientifically, there aren’t data that natural foods are better for health or are more cost effective," he said. "If you don’t process an egg, you have a component that inhibits absorption of biotin, an important B vitamin. If you don’t process, there is microbial risk. If you don’t thermally process tomatoes, cook them, the lycopene is not biologically available."
Mr. Clemens went on to note that the fortification of enriched flour with folic acid, a process that is not natural, reduced markedly incidence of neural tube birth defects in the United States.
"There was a huge public health benefit from adding folic acid because flour products are consumed so widely it is a natural vehicle, a logical vehicle," he said. "Keep in mind that natural does not mean safe. It doesn’t mean better for your children. You may want a natural product, but we cannot justify that they are better. From a scientific perspective it is without foundation."
The myriad meanings that may be attached to the term "natural" also factor into Ms. Jones’ negative view. She said when she speaks on the subject she often points out that certain deadly bug sprays contain only natural ingredients.
"The same can be said of natural cobra venom or botulinum toxin," she added. "Nothing could be more toxic than nature itself. This idea that nature is salutary is crazy."
When asked whether the term "natural" means "no artificial preservatives" to many consumers, Ms. Jones said it has a different meaning to many others. And because natural truly means unhealthy in many instances, she prefers other ways to communicate a product has no artificial preservatives.
"Instead of ‘natural,’ why not just say, ‘No artificial preservatives,’" she said. "The term natural is not specific. Maybe you could say ‘Wholesome,’ ‘Tried and true ingredients,’ or ‘Only what Grandma would have put in it.’"
Those preferences aside, Ms. Jones was not willing to predict that use of "natural" would disappear from food product labels.
"I would prefer a word that has some meaning to it, but I think there will be a tremendous fight about what natural is," she said. "The food industry should be careful about what it wishes for. Rules could come out that are much stricter than no additives or preservatives. But I agree that we should tell the people what it is you are trying to tell them in a way that is not ambiguous."