who says a product is 'natural'?

by Kira Garrett | April 13, 2014

Not long ago, a popular soft drink was re-introduced with the label “all-natural”. We found this odd in that there is nothing natural about soda pop. The second ingredient of this beverage is high-fructose corn syrup. Have you ever seen a high-fructose corn syrup farm or orchard? Of course there is no such thing, contrary to what this label may lead you to believe. The commercials for this product say otherwise: images of soda cans picked from trees like fruit tell consumers that this soda is different; this soda is what nature intended for you to drink. Ironically, this particular soda has no fruit juice, nor does it contain anything that is not manmade or processed in some way.

So what does the term “natural” truly mean when it comes to labeling products for you and your companion animals? To answer this question, we visited the website of the Natural Ingredient Resource Center (NIRC), an organization whose purpose is to inform consumers and manufacturers about natural ingredients. Here we found that the official USDA definition of “natural” only applies to meat and poultry: "those products carrying the “natural” claim must not contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients, and are only “minimally processed.” Not a bad start, but this definition leaves a lot more wiggle room than terms such as “certified organic” which is strictly regulated. In other industries, such as cosmetics, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and of course pet products, there is no official regulatory body to uphold a definition as it applies to labels. This leaves it to the discretion of the manufacturer, who is – let’s face it – most likely looking out for themselves.

As it pertains to pet food, the use of the term natural has become the latest and greatest marketing tool, but it is not yet fully backed by consistent federal guidelines. AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is a governing body that publishes definitions for terms such as ‘natural’ in pet foodpet treats, and other pet products. However, each individual state is not required to follow the AAFCO definition and is in charge of writing and enforcing their own definitions and laws. So, for example, what’s considered ‘natural’ in Kansas may be different than what Vermont considers ‘natural’. In addition, the AAFCO recommended definition of the term “natural” loose enough to do little to defend consumers against synthetic ingredients. The official AAFCO definition of the term “natural” reads as follows: “A feed or ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subjected to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” Whew! That’s a mouthful. There are loopholes the size of Texas in this definition. For example, the “good manufacturing practices” are not defined. Also, there are provisions in the AAFCO definition that allow for use of the term “natural” as long as the packaging also includes a disclaimer – such as with cases where synthetic vitamins are added to a given product.

So what is one to do if they want to stick to truly natural dog food and other natural pet products? In the case of choosing the most “natural” and the healthiest pet food and treats for your companion animals, you are your pets’ biggest advocate. Read the ingredient list and look for the right kinds of ingredients; healthy simple things that you can pronounce. Keep an eye out for those disclaimers that open the door to synthetic additives like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, propylene glycol (also used as a less-toxic version of automotive antifreeze), and ethoxyquin. Compare labels. And ask questions. Those phone numbers on packaging are there for a reason! If an ingredient on the back of a “natural” product makes your eyebrows crinkle, or if you are concerned about any particular ingredient, try asking the manufacturer what it is, or try visiting the Natural Ingredient Resource Center website ( ). We’ve found them to be a very helpful resource and they will answer email queries promptly.

As long as the definition of “natural” is up to the company trying to sell you a product, it’s up to you to decide if that product measures up to your own standards.