What are “naturally derived” ingredients and how do they compare to ingredients that are actually natural?

“Naturally occurring” is defined as a natural product, ingredient, or nutrient that is delivered in a natural form. Whole foods, whole herbs, cold-pressed vegetable oils, Himalayan salt, whole grains, etc. These all are found in nature — and they all have naturally occurring rich nutrients in a bioavailable state.  

“Naturally derived” or “plant-derived” is defined as ingredients that have been taken (or “derived”) from nature, have then been modified and/or extracted, and may be used to artificially recreate an ingredient, or isolated nutrient (in an unnatural form, chemically modified).

Unfortunately, it is hard to know exactly how “natural” these types of ingredients and products are. How were they derived? Unnaturally e.g using toxic chemical processes like hexane processed seed oils? As a consumer, it is hard to tell from looking at a label. In fact, many manufacturers consider “naturally derived” a real benefit to the consumer, particularly if the brand uses lots of synthetic ingredients. Naturally derived is often used as a form of “greenwashing”.

For example, an olive, whether delivered whole or ground up and dried, would be classified as naturally occurring. Olive oil that is extracted from olives and kept in its natural form (untreated, cold or expeller pressed) would be classified as naturally occurring olive oil. All nutrients and constituents in the olive oil are naturally occurring, and more readily available than nutrients that might be added back, typically as synthetic isolates. When you extract ingredients from whole, natural ingredients and then biochemically alter them (synthesize in a lab) or concentrate them, it would be classified as “naturally derived”. 

In another example: most pharmaceutical and street drugs are naturally derived but completely synthetic though chemically identical. Statins for instance are based on a natural ingredient, the active nutrient in red yeast rice which is monacolin K. Statin drugs use patented synthetic versions of monacolin K. Studies have found that both are effective at lowering cholesterol, however, synthetic versions of anything have more side effects because your body recognizes them as synthetic (not natural). In addition, natural ingredients contain co-factors that make the active ingredient more available (and safer). Read more about the dangers of synthetic nutrients from the Organic Consumers Association.

Many “natural” supplements have naturally derived ingredients. For instance, some Fish Oil Supplements contain concentrated EPA or DHA fatty acid profiles or fatty acids in the ethyl ester form. However, there is neither any fish nor any animal on earth that has fatty acids in the ethyl ester form. Similarly, there is no natural source of hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, or synthetic vitamins like Ascorbic Acid (a form of Vitamin C). Natural forms of Vitamin C occur in fruits and vegetables as well as herbs like Amla or Camu Camu.

See the difference? But it gets even trickier. There is no legal definition for “natural” or for “naturally derived”. A Bill was proposed in 2019 to create legal definitions for these but it has not passed yet.

Bottom line, when you are shopping for natural personal care products, natural supplements, or cleaning products, avoid synthetic ingredients, including those that are “naturally derived” unless they represent a very small amount of the product OR you understand how they were processed (derived). 

For more — the Natural Products Association has very good, comprehensive criteria for “natural products”.