The Definition of 'Natural' Food
What constitutes a 'natural' food? Well, several dictionary definitions of the word ‘natural’ may help to clarify this question. Something that is natural is known as 'existing in or produced by nature’, 'being in accordance with or determined by nature’ and ‘based on features existing in nature’. Based on these slight variations of the same thing, it seems that to be natural, something must be in an original state or as close to the original thing as possible.
However, the food industry frequently takes some latitude with the definition of 'natural', using labelling jargon like '100% natural', or 'made with natural ingredients' slapped on the front of packaged goods. And well, it works. Research shows that people are attracted to the term 'natural', as it's considered to be synonymous with something healthy and devoid of artificial ingredients.
Clever marketing ploys using earthy green fonts and rustic brown packaging give us as consumers the impression that we're making a more natural, and therefore healthier purchase. Many grocery items including muesli bars, yoghurt, bread, pre-made soups and sauces may indeed have natural ingredients in them, but does this mean the whole thing is natural?
If we dig deeper, Wikipedia helps more directly answer the question: what is natural food? The terms "natural food" and "all-natural food" are used in food labelling and marketing with various meanings. They typically suggest that the food has not been processed or manufactured. More specifically, this term refers to foods that contain only ingredients that naturally occur in unprocessed food.
Understanding Natural Food, Organic Food & Genetically Modified Food
While we can sit and debate the semantics of 'natural', there could be some other ways to understand this term better when it comes to food products.
Guidelines on 'Natural' Food in Australia
Unlike European countries and the United Kingdom, Australia doesn't have any formal guidelines for what constitutes a 'natural food'. According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), there is no clear definition of what natural food is. But remember that plenty of packaged foods do indeed contain natural ingredients. The key is not to be duped by the wording on the front, and always flip the product over to read the ingredients list on the back.
The good news is that the FSANZ food code guidelines are very clear on labelling rules for additives, sweeteners, preservatives, GM labels and other excipients in food. So once you sift through these on an ingredients list, the other items should be simply derived from natural products, i.e. derived from animals and plants.
So what's an example of a natural food?
Something like shortbread or tomato sauce can reasonably be thought of as a natural food. If you can quickly identify ingredients like butter, sugar and flour for shortbread, with no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or additives, then you're in a good position to make an informed choice as a consumer. These kinds of foods are considered fairly clean and are naturally better for you. The goal is to know what's in the food you buy and to confirm that the claims on the front reflect the ingredients on the back.
Is Organic Food The Same As Natural Food?
To confirm, organic food is not the same as natural food as far as farming methods and processing are concerned. As mentioned, in Australia, 'natural' is just a description, whereas 'organic' is a qualification. For a food product to successfully qualify as 'organic', the product should comprise at least 95% organic agricultural ingredients and the remaining ingredients, additives, and processing aids should be listed as acceptable under organic regulations.
To qualify as organic, every ingredient must have been grown without any synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides. For animal products labelled as organic, the animals cannot be given growth regulators and must be fed only human-made livestock feed. While there is some overlap between 'natural' and ‘organic' foods, they cannot be classified as the same when it comes to food manufacturing.
Yes, Natural Food Can Be Processed
Take the tomato sauce and shortbread examples above. Purists may say that these foods cannot be categorised as natural, but I beg to differ. Obviously, a fresh tomato is as natural as it gets. A few processing steps (ideally as minimal as possible), combined with a couple of other natural ingredients, and you've got tomato sauce.
The reality is, a tomato lasts about a week, but tomato sauce lasts (hang on, while I read the label) about 12 months from the manufacturing date. There's a good argument in this conversation, in favour of enjoying minimally-processed natural foods as freely as their fresh counterparts. They last longer and really aren't bad for you at all. And in truth, unless you grow your own fruit and veg, the produce you find in supermarkets will have undergone one or several stages of processing anyway.
So perhaps a more nuanced take on processed food needs to be considered. There's certainly a difference between foods that have been minimally processed versus majorly processed. There's clear distinctions between rolled oats and a high fructose corn syrup-laden muesli bar with rainbow sprinkles. More importantly, there's a lot of foods that fall in between these two extremes. Natural muesli (scroll for a homemade recipe) is just a couple of steps from oats as we know them, and when you look at the ingredients, it would be considered a healthy, natural food ideal for almost anyone.
Genetically Modified Food: A Product of Nature?
The peak body for food regulation in Australia, FSANZ maintains that food modification has been around for generations. On a simple level, this is known as cross-breeding. This is a technique used to select desirable qualities in certain species, such as disease resistance and then grow another generation that carries these characteristics.
Over the last few decades, this process has been refined in laboratories and the industry of genetically modified (GM) food has boomed. Modern techniques allow for the transfer of specific traits between living organisms by copying a particular gene from one organism and inserting it into another organism to give it the desired characteristic. This can be done with plants, animals, and microorganisms.
In Australia, GM foods are food products that come from genetically modified organisms. Currently, all the approved GM foods are derived from GM plants, such as corn plants that have a built-in resistance to insects, or soybeans that have been modified to have a specific fat profile, desirable for frying. In addition, some plants are now being developed to require less water to grow and better withstand changing climate conditions.
At face value, GM products seem like an innovative solution to ensure enough crops, seeds and oils are available to meet the growing demands of consumers, the food industry and agriculture. However, some research indicates that consuming GM foods may be harmful to human health. Many GM crops go on to produce animal feed or industrial oils and other products. So while GM products don't always end up in our food, the ones that do have undergone an intensive process, including heavy pesticide and herbicide spraying. These are all considerations to keep in mind when choosing what food to eat and the health implications that follow.
Health Benefits of Eating Natural Food
Eating food as naturally as possible confers many health benefits. You score all the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that mother nature packages up for you. Natural food can help increase energy levels, improve brain function, boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Natural foods reflective of the Mediterranean diet are the best example of these health benefits. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, quality animal protein, nuts and seeds all contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can improve overall health and help prevent disease.
Natural Foods: An Easy Way To Make Healthier Choices
It's fair to say that the term 'natural' can be misleading for consumers, and as discussed, is certainly a difficult term to define. These days, we as consumers are now paying closer attention to product labels and are becoming more inquisitive about the food we eat. It just takes some discernment to read what you're buying.
Including a wide variety of natural foods, as fresh as possible, and as close to nature as possible will ensure you're hitting the mark. Otherwise, it's best to consume whole foods that are minimally processed and have few recognisable ingredients. Or, make your own natural food recipes to reap all the health benefits each food can offer.
Natural Muesli with Shredded Coconut and Dried Blueberries
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut
- 1/2 cup dried blueberries
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, or pecans)
- 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- Optional: 1/4 cup honey or maple syrup for sweetness
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the rolled oats, shredded coconut, dried blueberries, chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and ground cinnamon. Mix everything together until well combined.
- Transfer the muesli to an airtight container and store it in a cool, dry place for up to 4 weeks.
- To serve, enjoy the muesli with your choice of milk, yoghurt, or as a topping for smoothie bowls.
- If you prefer sweeter muesli, drizzle the honey or maple syrup over the mixture and stir until everything is evenly coated.
Salad with Poached Chicken, Avocado, and Hemp Seeds
- 2 skinless chicken breasts
- 4 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 cups mixed salad greens
- 2 avocados, sliced
- 1/4 cup hemp seeds
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
- Optional additions: cherry tomatoes, cucumber, or chopped pecans
For the dressing:
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 tbsp honey (or maple syrup for vegans)
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a large saucepan, combine the water, salt, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Add the chicken breasts to the saucepan, ensuring that they are fully submerged in the liquid. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and reaches an internal temperature of 75°C.
- Remove the chicken from the saucepan and let it cool slightly before shredding it with two forks or slicing it into strips.
- In a large salad bowl, combine the mixed salad greens, sliced avocado, hemp seeds, and thinly sliced red onion. Add any optional salad ingredients you like.
- In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper until well combined.
- Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss everything together until evenly coated.
- Top the salad with the shredded or sliced poached chicken and serve immediately.
Vegan Turmeric Roasted Pumpkin Soup
- 1 medium-sized pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into cubes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 tbsp coconut oil or butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- Optional garnish: pumpkin seeds, fresh coriander, and a drizzle of coconut milk
- Preheat your oven to 200°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss the pumpkin cubes with olive oil, ground turmeric, salt, and pepper until evenly coated.
- Spread the pumpkin cubes out on the prepared baking tray in a single layer. Roast for 25-30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is tender and slightly caramelised.
- In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the coconut oil or butter over medium heat.
- Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the roasted pumpkin, vegetable broth, coconut milk, and ground ginger. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld together.
- Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until it's smooth and creamy. If you don't have an immersion blender, carefully transfer the soup to a countertop blender in batches and blend until smooth, then return it to the pot.
- Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning as needed, adding more salt, pepper, or ginger to taste.
- Serve the soup hot, garnished with pumpkin seeds, fresh coriander, and a drizzle of coconut milk if desired.
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