Q 6: What does 'Natural' mean? What about 'Natural Flavors?'
A 6: First of all- the reason you are here is for GMO information. For our purposes of eating non-GMO, the word 'natural' no matter where you find it, means Nothing. Avoid anything with 'Natural flavors/flavorings' in the ingredients list, and ignore 'natural' when asking if there are GMOs period. As for what else Natural means, well if you've been buying food because it's labeled natural, sit down and get some organic comfort food while you read this.
The fact that GMOs are in 'natural' foods and called 'natural ingredients' or even listed in the ingredients list as 'natural flavors' may be the least nefarious part of the story, because you already knew that the FDA thinks GMOs are great and need no regulation. Despite the now immense and growing scientific interest (which translates to important unanswered questions), despite all the pages the FDA dedicates to it, all the money spent on it, all the lawsuits and court cases, and the complexity and novelty of the technology involved, despite everything that makes GMOs obviously fundamentally different than anything that has existed on Earth in its history, GMOs are treated by the FDA as if they are immaterial to them- not even worthy of a footnote on a package or a single regulation. But there is much more to the story.
The essence of what 'Natural' means according to the FDA has no associated regulations except in the cases of meat and poultry, and in the ingredients list definition of 'natural flavors/flavorings' discussed below as a separate problem. In this pdf document from the FDA website, read question 1 (click here) and see that 'Natural' written on a product guarantees absolutely nothing, ever, and that 'Organic' absolutely does. Aside from the few exceptions just listed, U.S. products sold as 'food' can be made with any substance found on Earth, created in a lab, irradiated, genetically modified, and grown with or treated with anything so long as it is not prohibited from food in general and call itself natural. Also, the FDA has determined that cloned animals and their products including from a GMO animal are safe for consumption and will be released into the market at some time in the future. See the FDA's cloned animal page for more on that, especially 'consumer FAQs', but also search online frequently for updates yourself so you know as soon as it enters the food supply because it is not going to be labeled and we believe it will be out there sooner than the FDA website suggests. In fact, if you read the previous FAQ#5, you'll see the link to why we think people are already eating cloned beef and animal products. Here is the FDA's Q&A on GMOs and here is a scary FAQ on clones that says anyone can breed clones for anything including our food.
Remember that the FDA holds that there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO food. You probably know that this is untrue but if you do not and have not done so already, please see our resources page. Also, you may be surprised to find evidence that GMOs are different on www.fda.gov but it is there because, to their credit, the FDA website contains articles and documents that are supportive of, and in opposition to its current policies. We do not know how these articles and documents are chosen. There's nothing balanced about the site. The policy of the FDA itself is completely geared to allow GMO's in food, without requiring any testing whatsoever before approval and release. The FDA attempts to justify the pro-GMO policy with arguments based on strange assumptions asserted in 1992. Read the 1992 policy here, and witness that it is still what is being used here). So 'Organic' is not allowed to be claimed without expensive difficult certification, but GMOs are completely unregulated and unlabeled so they pass unnoticed into our meals? And 'natural' ... well, lets continue.
'Natural' nearly never indicates a non-GMO food by itself. So far, we have found only one food product that was non-GMO with 'Natural' in the brand name. In fact, we have found the use of the word 'natural' to be often extremely deceptive. Read the ingredients label on a few products labeled 'natural.' Some are whole foods until the last few ingredients that are GMO. Some are gigantic unpronounceable scary-sounding lists. Look at something that should be just a few ingredients that says 'natural' on the package, the product name, or even the brand. And the most insidious advertising of all is 'ALL (or 100%) natural' on what can only be called foodstuffs. There has been an explosion of that. Think of all those consumers dedicated to buying 'natural foods' at whatever the cost, to make their families or the planet healthier- when they are, in reality, made of goodness knows what or how.
Another troublesome item is the meaning of the terms 'natural flavors' and 'natural flavoring.' They can be GMO- and you will never know. The words mean 'mainly for flavor,' and 'is not synthetic, or synthetically derived / obtained / processed' -except that GMOs are not treated as synthetic or different at all! They are considered the same as the original manipulated plant or animal - absolutely interchangeable. If a Genetically engineered organism that has genes inserted from bacteria into plants or animals through a process that allows them to penetrate a cell and not be rejected by it, that code for an insecticide or pesticide-tolerance and is experimental-stage science with known concerns is not synthetic, how comfortable are you with the definition of synthetic they use? Non-synthetic doesn't mean the food is not altered in a way that you need to know about. In fact, some 'non-synthetic' (as defined by the FDA) processes are extremely technical and altering that produce these 'non-synthetic' ingredients. Just how are 'synthetic' and 'natural flavoring/flavor' defined by the FDA for the ingredients lists? We link to the Code of Federal Regulation 21 because these definitions are not simple. I would call them completely unhelpful even to the advanced food sleuth. But they adhere to definitions, whether we like the definitions or not, in this small area of a food package- unlike all the rest of the places you will see the term 'natural' on it. But why is there this catch all? Why is the practice permitted in a legally required 'complete' list of ingredients of not actually listing ingredients? Feel free to substitute the term 'natural flavoring/flavors' in the ingredients list with 'intentionally non-disclosed items.' It's not just about GMO's. What does a new vegetarian think 'natural flavors' means? What if you have a food allergy that isn't as commonly known as peanuts, soy and shellfish- and you screen all the ingredients. Do you realize 'natural flavors' negates this whole safety assurance? But more importantly, when you have to depend on someone else to tell you, what do they think it means? Probably few people if any know that with your diet you can't have 'natural flavors.' You would have to tell them that you want to know if the term 'natural flavors/flavoring' is on the label or it will often be assumed that this information is not needed, even though you asked to know all ingredients.
Unfortunately, many companies don't even think about it because consumers have accepted it for so long and it must be better or easier or they wouldn't do it. And why did consumers accept this? Because we assumed that 'Natural' meant... well, natural. We should be able to say 'GMO versus natural' on this site to easily distinguish foods, because GMOs don't exist in nature! But we can't, and that makes it difficult to state our needs to others. In fact, it makes us have to be long-winded to communicate the need at all- and we get politically marginalized when we're just trying not to eat this kind of experimental, unnatural food that had never existed in human history. A person couldn't have designed a more slanted set of words- and words have power. That is one reason our slogan is 'looking for some real food?'. GMO's aren't real food, and there is nothing natural about them. If you're trying to explain that, its a good idea to look at the resources page to find information on how they are made because that will help others understand what you mean when you say they are not natural.
Tell everyone that is supportive of your diet that 'Natural' on a package means nothing, before they try to help you and bring 'natural' chips to the company potluck. In the process of going no-GMO, you learn to take nothing for granted. Don't feel pressured to eat it. Tell that caring person how mean it was for that brand to prey on them when they were trying so hard to see you could eat something too. After all, they were just suckered into throwing their money and time away when trying to be a friend. It might even embarrass them so say it quietly. You could even share with them that caring and intelligent consumers like them are being tricked and send them here.