Natural, organic - what does it really mean?

Terms like natural and organic are being used more and more. But are they actually meaningful, and not just fads or marketing tricks? Read on for a closer look.

When is something natural?

The term "natural", although intuitively obvious, isn't so straightforward when you attempt to define it.

According to the Webster Dictionary:

Natural:
"existing in or produced by nature; not artificial"

Is that an adequate definition? That's not so certain, since formally it includes all fossil deposits — petroleum, coal, natural gas &mdash because they were produced by nature over hundreds of millions of years. But most people wouldn't call oil-derived chemicals, such as plastics and natural.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, suggests that “a natural product is a chemical compound or substance produced by a living organism. A natural product can be considered as such even if it can be prepared by total synthesis” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_products).

According to this definition, anything that can be found in a living organism, regardless of how it's produced, can be called natural.

One can see how this definition can serve the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, but it does not apply to natural food, for example, which you would not like to be prepared by “total synthesis”. Artifical flavors, for instance, could be called natural under this definition, since they are present in real fruit (though are reproduced in the laboratory).

Perhaps the most satisfactory definition comes from the "Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients", which defines natural product as a "product that is derived from plant, animal or microbial sources, primarily through physical processing, sometimes facilitated by simple chemical reactions such as acidification, basification, ion exchange, hydrolysis, and salt formation as well as microbial fermentation." The only problem? Any of these processing steps can involve toxic and harmful reagents, which is often the case in large-scale manufacturing.

In search of an official definition

With all these different interpretations floating around, how do we make sure we're not getting tricked? In cases like this, where a simpel label can be so easily mis-applied, the ideal solution would be an official regulation from a governing body.

What do we find? It turns out that the US Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) doesn't have any formal definition of a natural product, but rather a "policy." It states that "natural" means that the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, while a "natural ingredient" is an ingredient "extracted naturally from plants and natural products as opposed to being produced synthetically”.

The United States Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov) suggests a more specific definition of the natural products, requiring that

  1. The product does not contain artificial flavor, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient, and
  2. The product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.
    1. It's somewhat of a negative definition, though. It tells us that the product isn't—what is it, then?

      Regulatory definitions like these are important, because they ensure that when we're walking down the supermarket aisle, we know exactly what the manufacturers are telling us when they label something as "natural". But they don't really answer the question of what natural products mean to us, as a society. They don't answer the important questions of how we can make our industrial and agricultural activities sensible and sustainable, and protect both our own health, and the health of the environment on the long term.

      What's your take?

      So, what is a natural product in your opinion? Should it come only from living organisms, or can there be exceptions? And what kind of processing is a dividing line between natural and synthetic?

      Share your thoughts in the discussion forums. Look out for the next installment of this article series, where we explore the meaning of organic products.