Natural herbs
Plant-based extracts are considered natural ingredient options.

By default, it may still not be natural 

Ingredients that qualify legally as natural and artificial are few and far between. In fact, the category of flavors is the only one that specifically uses such language. Based on the raw materials used in manufacturing, flavors are identified as artificial or natural and must be labeled as such on ingredient statements.

The F.D.A. does not qualify any preservative as natural, but it does define chemical preservatives. These are any chemicals that when added to food tend to prevent or retard deterioration. Ingredients excluded from this list include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices or oils extracted from spices, as well as substances added to food by direct exposure, for example, wood smoke.

Plant-based extracts, such as rosemary, green tea, acerola and celery, as well as fermented ingredients such as vinegar, lactic acid, cultured sugar or dextrose, are considered natural options for preservation (and curing in meat), Mr. Charest said. 

With sweeteners, the language is a bit different. The F.D.A. does not impose the descriptor of artificial to any sweetener, rather, there are six high-intensity sweeteners —acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose — that are approved as food additives in the United States. Even though they are not legally classified as artificial sweeteners, this descriptor has become common language.

Label claims such as “free from artificial sweeteners” will appear on products sweetened with either of two rather new high-intensity sweeteners: monkfruit and stevia. The F.D.A. in the past has issued letters saying the agency has no questions regarding petitions for the generally recognized as safe status for both stevia and monk fruit.

When looking at sweeteners with zero calories, recent data provided by Mintel, Chicago, indicates use of “natural origin” sweeteners is sharply on the rise, Ms. Clark said.

“In 2010, only 9% of new products launching with high-intensity sweeteners used stevia,” she said. “As of August 2017, stevia was used in 27% of new products launched with these types of sweeteners and outpaced the use of aspartame for the first time.”

With colors, allowed claims are even more confusing. Basically, any ingredient with the sole purpose of adding color to a food or beverage is a color additive, with all color additives requiring approval by the F.D.A. as a food additive. The F.D.A. classifies color additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is also commonly referred to as artificial or synthetic, and the latter, by default, often is characterized as natural. But again, these are commonly accepted terms, not legal descriptors.

Manufacturers need to be aware that the F.D.A. does not consider any color added to a food as being natural, unless the color is natural to the product itself. For example, a strawberry cream cheese spread colored with strawberry extract could be labeled “all-natural,” providing that none of the other ingredients in the spread were characterized as artificial. Such a description would not be possible if beet juice, an F.D.A.-recognized color additive, were used for a colorful boost. Label claims of “free from synthetic colors” or “colored with vegetable juice” are possible.

Navigating natural in the meat and poultry sector is a little different than the rest of food and beverage, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers guidance, albeit, somewhat confusing and at times even misleading. The agency specifies that meat and poultry products may be labeled natural if they are only minimally processed and don’t have any artificial flavorings, colorings, preservatives or other additives.

“One thing we have seen — through the Power of Meat study and internal research — is that consumers are not just looking at the ingredients listed in their product,” said Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing communications manager, Kemin Food Technologies, Des Moines, Iowa. “They are interested and concerned with all aspects of the production of these products. From animal welfare to raw material/ingredient sourcing to sustainability. This relates back to the need for total transparency from food manufacturers.”

Kemin addresses this with its vertical integration approach to plant extracts. The approach allows Kemin to have total supply chain control, which reduces raw material contamination risk and also puts emphasis on the sustainability of product.

Jon Getzinger, c.e.o., Puris, Minneapolis, said, “There is risk involved in using the word natural. Look for a more defensible and defined approach.”