The term natural food has a variety of meanings, and in many countries no official definition. Although many packages grocery stores are labeled as "all natural," what this means can vary by region or country. In the United States (U.S.), there is no legal definition of "natural" on food labels; because of this, the U.S. Federal and Drug Administration (FDA) actually discourages companies from using these word choices. The Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom has suggested criteria for companies to follow to use "natural" on food labels, but it isn't legally required advice. Some consumers also may believe that natural foods are always organic, but this is not the case; natural can also be interpreted to mean unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Many buyers striving to purchase only natural foods have resorted to refusing to eat anything that lists ingredients they can't pronounce.
Unlike the natural foods label, products marked with an organic certification have normally met rigid requirements to hold that title. Many governments regulate the growth and processing of organic foods to ensure that a only a minimal amount of pesticides and other chemicals were used. Debate surrounds the nutritional value of organic foods. The University of California in the U.S. found that organic foods can have a 20 to 30 percent increase in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, iron and magnesium.
Whole foods are sometimes called natural foods. These foods are sold as unprocessed as possible. Preservatives, sweeteners or salt are typically avoided in the production of whole foods. The FDA issued an official definition of a whole grain in 2006, for example. According to this U.S. regulatory agency, whole grains must keep three essential ingredients: germ, endosperm and bran. Although they often overlap, the terms organic and whole foods are not interchangeable.
A more radical version of natural foods presents itself in the raw food diet, also called the living food diet. Under these dietary constrictions, only whole foods are consumed, and no food is consumed that has been cooked over a certain temperature. Depending on an individual's preference, this temperature can range from 104 to 115 degrees. Raw foodists claim that excessive heat will destroy enzymes and the nutritional value in food, making cooked food toxic to the human body. Those who follow the raw food diet boast about extra energy and improved health. Not all who embrace the raw lifestyle eat 100 percent raw food, as many aim for 75 to 95 percent. Critics raise concerns about food poisoning or dangerous vitamin deficiencies caused by a raw-only diet. Vitamin B12, iron, calcium, protein or zinc might be difficult to work into a raw food diet.
Most people who seek natural foods at the grocery store are looking for a healthier lifestyle or an environmentally friendly meal plan. Since natural foods do not have an official definition, it may be best to determine what natural means on an individual basis, whether the shopper is looking for organic food, whole foods or raw foods, before hitting the store.