When we seen the word "natural" attached to any ingredient on a label it seems rather natural to assume that it's absolutely fine, wonderful, and heck, maybe even good for us. There are times when this may be true, but more often than not it's some marketing team's attempt at making a product sound better than it really is.
You see, many additives, particularly flavours and colours, can come in several variants; namely "natural", "natural identical" and "synthetic" (or "artificial"). When an additive is labelled as synthetic or artificial, it means that it does not occur in nature at all but is rather the product of a laboratory, a natural identical additive is also made in a lab but the end product mimics exactly a molecule that is found in nature. Finally, the natural additives are derived from vegetable, animal or mineral sources.
Wow...that last one really sounds great, doesn't it? Except that if you think about it for a moment, you'll probably realise that it is rather a loose definition. (And food marketers are going to exploit that fact.) The reality is that not everything that occurs in nature (whether vegetable, animal or mineral) happens to be good for you.
Let me illustrate this with an extreme example: Did you know that the Japanese puffer-fish (or fugu) is a delicacy that causes several deaths in Japan due to deadly toxins that naturally occur in parts of the fish? Deaths occur when the toxin-containing parts are not properly removed. And yes, both the fish and the toxins are absolutely natural. Now with this example I'm not saying you're going to find additives derived from the puffer-fish in your food but rather that we need to stop associating "natural" with "healthy" or "good for you". When we are able to do this, we are less likely to be seduced by a label that is the brainchild of someone in a marketing department.
A more likely example (but still rather disturbing) is one reported by Dr Mercola on his health-watchdog site (a link to the original article can be found at the bottom of this article). Put bluntly, it would seem that the vanilla flavour used in certain processed foods can actually be derived from a Beaver's arse. Or more accurately from the anal secretions beavers use to mark their territory. Again, I'm not telling you to stop eating custard, ice-cream or anything that may have vanilla flavour in it (for one, not all vanilla flavour is made this way) but rather that the term "natural" could actually legally be used to describe this flavour and leave us victims of marketing and loose definitions once again.
I've no doublt in my mind that nature is full of wonders, it is often fascinating and miraculous, but at times it is also even extremely perilous. Nature can cure, and it can kill, and anything in between. So when it comes to our food, perhaps its time we start viewing the term "natural" at least in a more neutral manner. Let's give those food marketers a bit more of a challenge, shall we?
Article Reference: "Beaver-Based Alternative to Vanilla" by Dr. Mercola (original article found here.