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What does 'natural' mean when it comes to food?

Natural is one of many terms used to

Natural is one of many terms used to describe food – to justify higher prices or to make you feel better about what you're eating. Credit: iStock

What does "natural" mean?

When applied to food, virtually nothing. According to the USDA, "natural" meat is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. Which is to say that a natural pork chop is a piece of raw meat that has had nothing added to it -- not exactly a ringing endorsement. Moreover, that broad designation applies only to meat, poultry and egg products. Natural cereal, natural marinara sauce, natural yogurt -- they're exactly the same as cereal, marinara sauce and yogurt.

Natural is just one of a whole slew of terms that food manufacturers and restaurants use to justify higher prices or to make you feel better about what you're eating. Here are some of my favorites:

Artisanal It simply means made by an artisan; that is, by a human being who is skilled at his or her craft. Translated into food, it signifies a product that has been made on a small scale and whose manufacture involves actual, physical human expertise. Shaping a loaf of bread or crimping the crust of a pie, forming a wheel of cheese and turning it periodically while it ages, rolling out pasta, filling sausage casings one at a time -- this is the work of artisans.

If you are offered artisanal bread, jam, ham or pasta on a menu, ask the name of the artisans who made it.

Brick-oven pizza Some old-fashioned wood-fired ovens are constructed from brick, but the term has come to refer to a pizza oven that is somehow more ... artisanal than the regular, gas-fired stainless-steel deck ovens found in hundreds of thousands of pizzerias. Install a brick face on the wall in which your deck oven is embedded and, presto: brick oven.

In fact, the material an oven is made of is far less important than the fuel burned therein. Wood is traditional in Italy; whereas, the first New York pizza ovens were fired with coal. These days, you see a lot of fancy, beehive-shaped ovens -- whether covered with bricks or ceramic tile or stucco. But look inside the oven. If you see a line of regular flames along one side, those are gas jets. There may be a smoldering log in there, too, for flavor, but you are looking at a gas oven. If a pizzeria is touting its brick-oven pizza, ask what type of wood the pizzaiolo prefers.

Farm raised Where else would you raise a chicken, cow, pig or sheep? Or carrot? Until they start selling lab-grown meat and vegetables, I'm going to assume it all comes from farms. And I'm going to ask which farm.

Heirloom This refers to an old breed of vegetable that predates modern varieties. "Heirloom" is not, itself, a variety. If something is called an heirloom, it is a specific heirloom and you can ask its name -- Mr. Stripey is an heirloom tomato; Bintje is an heirloom potato.

Local Every food is local somewhere. Idaho potatoes are local in Idaho. Vidalia onions are local in Georgia. If something is billed only as "local," you have no way of knowing whether it's from the same county, state, region, time zone or hemisphere. If a restaurant claims to be serving local vegetables, ask where exactly they are from.

Now that I have turned you into a champion interrogator, I should warn you that many servers do not welcome these culinary cross-examinations.

For me, I can't help myself; it's my birthright. When my dad was a young man, a colleague and frequent dining companion said to him: "Len, you're not going to die a natural death; you're going to be shot by a waitress." He just turned 83 and is still driving waitresses nuts.