What is Natural?


We are often asked “is what you do natural?” or “can you call your products natural?” The answer tends to be, “it depends”.

It depends because the term “natural” is hopelessly confused. It depends, because different people judge things as natural using differing criteria. It depends because the law varies by product and country, and often there is no law at all.

So the purpose of this section is NOT to give the definitive answer on this topic, but to set out a few observations that might be worth reflecting upon.

Natural is not “black or white”

Clearly, there are plants and animals that are completely “natural”: a leopard in the wild, a spider’s web in a woodland glade, smallpox.

Equally clearly, there are things that are completely “artificial”: smartphones, bicycles, contact lenses.

But, there are also many things that are “partly natural” in that they use natural processes, but would not exist without the intervention of man. Gardens, alpine meadows and supermodels. Wheat, wine and bread. A roasted onion. In fact, pretty much all food combines both elements of nature, and elements that are the “work of man”.

‘Natural’ is best thought of as a spectrum of positions, rather than a yes or no proposition.

Natural is not the same as “good”

Natural is often used as a shorthand for “good”. Indeed, the “appeal to nature” is such a common rhetorical device that it has its own Wikipedia page.

But, this does not stand up to a moment’s analysis. Nature does not have “mind”. And if it did, it would clearly be culpable of many “cruel” outcomes (“nature red in tooth and claw”, tsunamis, droughts).

Nature is also the source of many poisonous and dangerous agents that can threaten both individuals and whole populations (ebola, ricin, malaria, etc.).

Is a bicycle bad because it is artificial? That would seem a difficult argument to maintain.

What about the law?

If trying to deal with “naturalness” philosophically is hard then it becomes even more complex when we get to the law. Different countries apply different rulings to different product categories. A flavour will be regulated differently from a sweetener.  And the regulations on both will differ between Europe, USA, China, Japan, India etc.

If there is prevailing approach, it is perhaps that legislators have recognised that “natural” is a very amorphous term and that trying to define it is not useful. The US Food and Drug Administration has, for example, taken this position.

In a few cases there are clear laws. For example, the European Union has a law (EC 1334/2008) defining (amongst other things) when a food flavour can be described as natural. Our vanillin can be described as natural according to this law.

Natural vs. not-so-natural

With regard to what Evolva does, then:

On the natural side …

  • We make things from plants (we typically use sugars from wheat or maize)
  • We make things using yeast (a natural microorganism)
  • We make things using fermentation (a naturally occurring process)
  • The ingredients we make occur in nature (and are completely identical to the “natural” version)

On the “not-so-natural” side …

  • None of what we do would happen without us working to make it happen
  • We make things in metal tanks (just like brewers do)
  • Our yeasts have been given the ability to make ingredients that are normally made by plants or other species

So, how does Evolva see it?

We believe that what we are doing is “as natural as making beer or bread”.

We phrase it this way because we would like you to consider how you view beer and bread. Do you see them as natural, mostly natural, or not at all natural? We would then suggest the same answer, at least for you, applies to our products.

Whatever you decide, we hope that this page, and the process of thinking about this topic, has been informative.

For additional information about our views on the subject of “natural” you can view here what we submitted May 2016 to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in response to the agency’s public Request for Information and Comments on use of the word “Natural” for human food labeling.

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