“Fresh,” “Natural,” “Processed”—What Do These Words Mean?

PoultryWords commonly used to praise or damn specific foods—words such as “fresh,” “natural,” and “processed”—mean different things to different people. They can be defined in two different ways by answering these two quite different questions: 


1) What do they mean to the U.S. governmental agencies that oversee our food supply?  


2) What does the average consumer think these words mean?




Let’s begin with the easiest one to define: “fresh.”  If you think it means “raw,” you’ve got only part of the definition.  If you think it means “never frozen,” you’re much closer.  However, the USDA’s definition is more specific than that.  Here is what the agency tells us about poultry: “Fresh” means whole poultry and cuts that have never been below 26°F, the temperature at which the tissue begins to freeze.  This definition is consistent with consumer expectations of “fresh” poultry, that is, not hard to the touch or frozen solid.  Poultry at 0°F or below is “frozen.”  So what does the government call poultry that’s between - 1°F - 25°F?  There is no official designation, though most consumers would call it “partially frozen.” 


Prior to 1997, there was a long-standing debate about whether raw poultry that had been frozen and was later defrosted before being put on sale could be called “fresh.”  Then, in 1997, the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) began enforcing a rule prohibiting the use of the label “fresh” on any raw poultry with an internal temperature below 26°F.  Still, today, many consumers consider thawed meat or poultry “fresh.”  In other words, to many, “fresh” equals “raw.” 


But “fresh” is not just about how cold the product is. According to the FDA, a product that has been heated or cooked or more than minimally processed cannot be called “fresh,” explains food scientist Dr. Karin Allen.


Now, how does “fresh” apply to produce?  To some consumers, it simply means “raw.”  But, food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser points out, to others it suggests other qualities: “Frozen vegetables are considered ‘fresh’ when kept frozen and properly prepared.  ‘Fresh’ may also have the connotation of ‘close to the farm,’  ‘from the farmers’ market,’ or ‘from the garden, meaning that the food or ingredient has recently been harvested in close proximity to the consumer.” 




“Natural” sounds good, doesn’t it? Something natural is clearly superior to something unnatural or artificial, right?  Wrong.  Although the connotation of “natural” is positive, a natural product may be contaminated, even poisonous.  Products with chemical preservatives may be healthier than natural ones in terms of curtailing the risk of acute food-borne illness. (The debate about the long-term effects of consuming artificial preservatives is another issue.)



That said; now let’s check out some definitions of the word. The USDA defines “natural” as a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and one that is only minimally processed.  Minimal processing means that the product was not fundamentally altered. (See the definitions of “processed” below.) The USDA requires that the label include a statement explaining the meaning of the term “natural,” such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed.”  The FDA does not have its own definition of “natural.” The FDA suggests that it agrees with the USDA definition, but, according to food scientist Dr. Karin Allen, doesn’t police compliance with it, as the USDA does.


(NOTE:  The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspect and regulate meat, poultry and processed egg products produced in federally inspected plants. FSIS is responsible for ensuring that these products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled. All other food products are regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   The FDA monitors about 80% of the U.S. food supply.)


The USDA enforces its definition even when only small amounts of a particular ingredient are involved. For example, if a manufacturer wants to add to a product a spice that contains a preservative, this is considered borderline. The manufacturer has to petition the USDA for permission to use this ingredient and still label the product “natural.”


The scientists on our site’s Advisory Board have provided comments on the meanings of both “natural” and “processed.”


Dr. Timothy Brewer: “The meaning of the word “natural” is changing on food labels and has more recently been taken by consumers to mean the following: nothing artificial, no preservatives, no additives or fillers, minimally processed, short ingredient list, and recognizable ingredients.” (Presumably, this last means no long scientific chemical names that the average consumer cannot understand.)


Dr. Karin Allen:  “I take the term to mean that the product has a shorter shelf life because it has no preservatives.  ‘Natural’ doesn’t mean ‘organic,’ but any USDA certified organic product must be natural, by the USDA definition.  If you are shopping at a store that specializes in organic and natural products (such as Whole Foods), you can be more confident that foods labeled ‘natural’ do not contain additives that affect color and do not contain chemical preservatives.”  (This point is made in response to the fact that the word “natural” has been so widely used that some people say it has no meaning at all, or, at the very least, it’s ambiguous.)




Has some friend or some article ever told you to avoid processed foods?  That would be almost impossible to do because most foods have been at least minimally processed before we purchase them or after we handle them at home.


Dr. Catherine Cutter explains that, from the point of view of the USDA and FDA, “processed food” is any food that has been altered from its original form. She points out the following: “If you peel or cut an apple, you’ve processed it, although only minimally.  If you bake it or turn it into applesauce, you’ve processed it even more.  Bagged lettuce is also processed, and so is pasteurized milk.”


 Dr. Allen adds that heating, freezing, and mixing a food with another food are all forms of processing.  What can be done to edibles that the government would not consider processing? Brushing dirt off potatoes.  Pulling dead or dying leaves off a head of lettuce.  Believe it or not, even polishing an apple with a cloth is a borderline action that might be considered “processing.” 


When consumers say that they are trying to avoid processed foods, they are, of course, talking about more extreme forms of processing.   These days, the word “processed” has negative connotations; just as “natural” has positive ones.  But, when it comes to avoiding illness, processed food can be defended. Dr. Allen points out, “There is more risk of contamination from minimally processed food than from processed or highly processed food.  Highly processed food presents more obstacles to bacteria. In terms of long-term health, we don’t have a handle on that [for example, the possible risks of injury from additives]. Animal studies allow us to be reasonably sure that the additives being used today won’t cause long-term health problems.   But people who are sensitive to a particular chemical might want to stick to minimally processed foods.” 


Still, the public continues to worry and question.  One prominent example in the news quite recently: the use of color additives to make food more attractive, especially to children.  For years, parents have been insisting that there is a link between color additives and hyperactivity in children. Some parents of hyperactive children say that their children’s behavior is worsened by color additives and improves dramatically when these are removed from their diet. A growing number of scientific studies have supported this belief.  For years, the FDA denied that there was a connection between these dyes and children’s behavior, However, the FDA has just recently (March 31) asked a panel of experts to review the evidence and make recommendations about possible policy changes.  This review could lead to a requirement of warning labels on Jell-0, Lucky Charms, Minute Maid Lemonade, and other products.  It’s unlikely to lead to a ban on the use of color additives, as some parents have been advocating for.


 Past government crackdowns on some color additives were the result of the dyes being found to be toxic, carcinogenic, or contaminated due to filth. Color additives are just one type of additive that has given processed foods a bad name and encouraged consumers to look for the “natural” label.  Highly processed foods are also commonly blamed for our nation’s obesity epidemic because of excessive amounts of salt, sugar, and fat added to prepared dishes sold in supermarkets and to much of the food served in fast food restaurants. 


Should you be eating only natural, minimally-processed food? Dr. Allen recommends moderation, eating a variety of foods, some processed and some unprocessed.  What comes straight from your garden to your table is great, but an occasional fast food sandwich won’t cut years off your life.   




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


usda.gov “Fact Sheets--Production and Inspection FSIS Food Recalls: Who regulates food products?”


The New York Times,   Money and Policy section “F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Foods Colorings” March 29, 2011


Usda.gov “Fact Sheets—“Food Labeling: Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms”


supermarketnews.com “USDA Sets Temperature Level for Fresh Birds”


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