Definitions for “Natural” Foods, Potency, and Dosage
I have a confession: I can be swayed by a product marketing campaign as easily as anyone. Words such as whole food, adaptogens, organic, science, and innovative can stop me in my tracks and drive me to learn more about the product rather than moving on by.
Words that don’t sway me include all-natural, natural, and human-grade ingredients.
In reality, those terms are meaningless.
“Natural”: FDA and USDA interpretations
Products like Lemon Creme Oreos®, Simply Natural Cheetos®, and Natural Skippy® Peanut Butter actually meet the FDA guidelines for “natural” because they don’t have artificial ingredients or added food colorings. But these products can contain GMOs and herbicide/pesticide residue and still be labeled “natural”. The FDA does not consider the word “natural” to describe any nutritional or health benefits.
The FDA also allows the word “natural” on labels for fortified foods and supplements containing, for example, B-vitamins made from coal tar and petroleum extracts. Personally, I want my B-vitamins from real food sources like rice or yeasts, eggs, fish, meat, avocados, fish, lentils, or sunflower seeds.
The USDA’s definition of “natural” for meat means it’s only minimally processed, but it may include meat from animals raised on hormones, antibiotics, GMO feed, or in concentrated animal processing operations.
The FDA, USDA, and label standards
The FDA and USDA have not yet established a formal definition of “natural” for meaningful labeling standards, but they have started a formal process to address some labeling issues. Many companies in the food industry oppose labeling changes. The Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a petition with the FDA arguing the agency should continue to allow use of the “natural” label on products containing GMOs.
Consumer advocacy groups favor reserving the term “natural” for organic food only.
Companies profit off consumer confusion. Consumers think “natural” is like “organic” — which couldn’t be further from the truth. From the actual FDA and USDA guidelines, labeling a product “natural” or “all-natural” really doesn’t mean much.
Pet food and “human-grade” ingredients
In 2023 the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) established new guidelines on what constitutes a “human-grade” dog food. Before these new guidelines went into effect, all that was expected of a “human-grade” label or website claim was that a product be “sourced from a USDA inspected facility.” All meat foods go through an inspection where “edible” (for the human market) and “inedible” (for the pet food market) is determined.
The new AAFCO guidelines for “human-grade” labeling include:
- All label information must apply to the entire product and every ingredient in it.
- All supplied ingredients are fit for human consumption.
- Every product and ingredient is stored in compliance with the FDA’s controls for human food.
- The manufacturing facility is licensed to produce human food.
- Statements of quality or grade cannot appear on the ingredient statement.
- Manufacturers must maintain written procedures documenting proper handling throughout the distribution channel.
The raw food conundrum
Based on AAFCO’s guidelines for “human-grade” dog food, raw food doesn’t qualify. Since AAFCO requires that all ingredients be edible for humans, only cooked meat is considered human-edible and only cooked, fresh dog foods can be labeled “human-grade”. The raw food you buy your pet may be good enough for the human food chain, but the company cannot label the raw food “human-grade”.
Natural and artificial flavorings
For a flavoring to be labeled “natural” according to the FDA, only 10% of it must be derived from plant or animal material. For example, a “natural” flavoring such as apple can consist of 80-90% chemical additives. These include preservatives, emulsifiers, solvents, flavor modifiers and more. And here’s the kicker: flavor manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients their flavors contain; nor are they required to disclose the plant or animal source.
“Artificial” flavorings are, of course, 100% chemically synthesized.
For perspective, note that the largest flavoring company in the world is Givaudan (in Switzerland), also known as one of the world’s leaders in the fragrance industry.
One of the goals of flavorings is not only to hide unpleasant-tasting ingredients, but to create a desire in the person or animal to eat more of the food. Flavoring companies are essentially creating addictive tastes in our animals and in ourselves. With the growing epidemic of overweight horses and dogs, feeding them a food or supplement that creates cravings may not be in their best health interests.
The independent nonprofit Environmental Working Group offers an excellent rundown of flavorings and industry practices:
Synthetic ingredients in Natural Flavors and Natural Flavors in Artificial Flavors, by David Andrews.
But does it work? The potency issue
When it comes to supplements, the potency and dosage of ingredients matter.
Certain ingredients such as selenium could cause toxicity if the dosage is too high.
Conversely, ingredients like herbs, probiotics, mushrooms, nutraceuticals and whole foods may not be able to provide actual health benefits to the horse if the potency and dosage is too low.
Take turmeric, for example:
Let’s say the label on a supplement states, “Turmeric Powder, 100 mgs”. Many horse owners are familiar with turmeric and its health benefits, so 100 milligrams might appear as a decent amount.
But there are differences between turmeric powder and turmeric extract. More clinical studies have been done on turmeric extract, because the active compounds such as curcumin and other curcuminoids are more highly concentrated in the extract form.
This means your horse needs smaller amounts of turmeric extract than turmeric powder.
So what is the right dosage and potency of turmeric for horses?
• To provide efficacy from turmeric powder, a horse needs 10,000 to 12,000 mgs (10-12g) per day. That’s a lot more than 100 mgs!
• Turmeric extract can range from 1,000 to 5,000 mgs per day for efficacy.
• Fermented turmeric, the most bioavailable form, ranges between 500 and 2,000 mgs per day for added health benefits.
Ingredient forms matter
As you can see, the form of an ingredient and its active compound is important. Depending on the source, the potency — and therefore the right dosage — will vary.
Using extracts and fermented herbaceous plants is costly to the company using these ingredients. Extracts can be two to three times more expensive than the ground, powdered version of a plant. Fermented herbs can be four to five times more expensive than the ground powered version.
The therapeutic support provided by a supplement increases with higher quality ingredients because they deliver more concentrated active compounds. With these supplements, fewer grams or milligrams are needed per serving to achieve efficacy. Depending on the other ingredients in the formula, this can mean smaller amounts of supplement powders or pellets to add to your horse’s feed bucket.
Be an educated shopper
Descriptors such as “natural” and “all-natural” in no way describe quality or potency, and have no bearing on the health and wellbeing of horses and dogs.
Flavorings, whether “natural” or artificial, have a questionable role in horse and dog supplements and foods, in my opinion. Remember, flavorings are designed to create a kind of addiction or craving for the food or supplement. With the growing issue of overweight horses and dogs, flavorings in foods and supplements need to be questioned and in many cases avoided.
Similarly, consumers need to be aware of the importance of ingredient potency, forms, and sources. Even what seems like a large amount of a powdered ingredient may not provide anywhere near the therapeutic benefit of a smaller amount of concentrated extract.
More on natural ingredients: See our article WHAT IS “NATURAL”?
More on flavorings: See our article THE VERDICT ON ARTIFICIAL — AND “NATURAL” — FLAVORINGS