The Whole Earth Sweetener Co. markets a stevia-based sweetener as Pure Via. The packaging reads, in part:

We understand that consumers have different ideas about what natural means. We want to share what natural means to us. We believe that an ingredient is natural if it exists in nature without human interference and has been extracted, or produced biologically, from plant material.

Well, I suppose that's their right. As Lewis Carroll wrote:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

But do others use the word that way? Is the word natural so restricted in common use? I seek evidence from the wild, such as corpora. Note that this definition would brand the following as unnatural, or artificial:

  • sea salt (not from plant material)
  • loganberries and triticale (hybrids, hence not without human interference)
  • any grape currently grown (a cultivar, hence not without human interference)
  • Unclear what you're asking. What answer would constitute a single acceptable answer (not discussion) that is not opinion based and is related to English Language and Usage? – SrJoven Dec 10 '14 at 16:56
  • @SrJoven, evidence from corpora of use of natural in this sense. – msh210 Dec 10 '14 at 17:00
  • @SrJoven, done. – msh210 Dec 10 '14 at 17:04
  • I'm saying this as a comment, instead of an answer, because it doesn't quite answer your question: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food labeling in the U.S., has not made a legal definition of "natural", but says "the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm214868.htm – PersonX Dec 10 '14 at 17:53
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    I still don't think this is an answerable question. It invites conjecture where definition isn't given, and otherwise would be answerable by GR. That is, the dictionary definitions are established and able to be directly referenced. Outside of that, the corpus of usage of the word natural is so varied that a consensus/common use is impractical to establish. – SrJoven Dec 10 '14 at 20:33

Honestly, the definition of natural is a huge problem.

I don't think that most people use natural in the same way that Whole Earth means it. However, when you try to define what most people mean, you run in to some huge problems.

From TFD:

natural: Present in or produced by nature

nature: The world of living things and the outdoors

In other words, using these definitions, humans would be part of nature (we are living things), and anything we do would therefore be natural.

I will assert that most people (other than perhaps some philosophers) would say that a steel building is unnatural, but loganberries or sea salt would be natural.

With that said, my definition for natural could be:

natural: anything found without modification in nature, or those things modified using processes found in nature.

In this way, hybrid plants are natural, because they are "modified" by selective breeding. And breeding is a process found in nature. However, an argument could be made that grafting is not found in nature, and therefore plant material from grafted plants is not natural, even though the two "halves" are themselves natural.

Wine wouldn't necessarily be natural, because it isn't found in nature (pressing and distilling are not natural processes to the best of my knowledge), but wine definitely contains natural ingredients (unless grafted; see above).

The real issue comes up when you're discussing GMOs. Technically, a GMO is just a "graft" at the genetic level: naturally occurring genes are spliced into the gene sequence of the primary plant to create more desirable characteristics. And, believe it or not, this process is actually found in nature: horizontal gene transfer. Obviously, modern genetic modification is highly guided by humans, and performed in settings that I would bet are widely considered unnatural, but nevertheless, the core process is a natural one.

Now, what about another "unnatural" material: glass. Glass is actually found fairly commonly in nature. Volcanoes spew glass material. And much of the sand on the beach is glass. While we have fairly complicated processes today for creating high quality glass, at its core, glass is just a natural material (silica) that is heated to a high temperature and then cooled, a process which can widely be found in nature.

I relate the problems of defining nature to the same problems that the word chemical faces. There is a clear, scientific definition of the word chemical, but laypeople have a different definition. Chemical is used to describe "bad" chemicals. While "good" chemicals get different names, like scents and flavors.

In the end, natural means exactly what you mean it to mean.

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    I don't see how this answers my question, which was not "What are some of the ways people define natural?" but "Is the above definition one of the ways that people generally define natural?". – msh210 Dec 10 '14 at 17:06
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    @msh210 You asked "But do others use the word that way? Is the word natural so restricted in common use?" And that's exactly what I answered. In other words, if you want the tl;dr version: no, people do not generally use the word natural that way, and it it not so restricted in common use, by using examples of common dictionary definitions and general, lay-person gut-feel identifications. However, that answer must be viewed in the context of the difficulty of defining natural because of the inherent blurring of the line between man-made and natural. – Nick2253 Dec 10 '14 at 17:24
  • @msh210 I agree with Nick. For one thing, I'd dispute Whole Earth's statement that natural means plant-based - are animals and ingredients derived from animals not natural? (I'm guessing they're a vegetarian company?) – Mynamite Dec 10 '14 at 20:45
  • All of chemistry uses processes found in nature. – Oldcat Dec 10 '14 at 21:47
  • @Mynamite, animals have been "produced biologically[] from plant material". – msh210 Dec 11 '14 at 17:06

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