"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

Humpty Dumpty in

"Alice Through the Looking Glass"

Humpty Dumpty might have been speaking for the food manufacturers who are cashing in on the back-to-nature movement and the public's concern over food additives by using the word "natural" on the label of their products.

At least 200 items that use the word somewhere on the label speckle the shelves of the traditional supermarket.

But judging from the many and perplexing applications of the term, consumers may eventually conclude that "natural" doesn't mean much anyway.

Is a fruit drink natural which contains 30 percent fruit juice, artificial color, citric acid, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil and guar gum? The manufacturers of Daisy Fresh Natural Blackberry Flavored Juice Drink think so. Above the name of the product, "Natural" is writ large. What about Kraft Natural Provolone Cheese (with added smoke flavor)? Or Kraft Cracker Barrel Natural Cheddar Cheese with artificial coloring? Does it confuse consumers t see cheddar cheese that is orange labeled natural when the natural color of cheddar cheese is creamy white?

How would Our Natural Oven Roasted Chicken Breast - made with chicken broth, potato starch, salt, sodium phosphates and flavoring - qualify?

What would be the proper category for Sara Lee Blueberry (or apple or pumpkin) Pie Made With All Natural Ingredients? Listed among those ingredients are carrageenan, locust bean gum, modified food starch and, in the pumpkin variety , casein.

Is Miller Brewing Co. correct in its allegationthat Anheuser-Busch is advertising a beer as "natural" which contains tannic acid and other chemical additives?

Who wants to decide?? Not the Food and Drug Administration. Several years ago, one top-ranking official said: "I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole!" FDA pretty much allows manufacturers to define natural as they see fit.

But just last year the Federal Trade Commission decided to make a stab at defining "natural" in its proposal to regulate food advertising. The proposal is now under consideration by the Commission. The staff suggested the following definitions:

"Advertising shal not represent that a food is natural or a natural food if: 1) Such food has undergone more than a minimal processing after harvest or slaughter, where minimal processing may include: the removal of inedible substances; the application of physical processes (e.g., cutting, grinding, drying or pulping) that change only the form of the food: and/or processing necessary to make food edible or safe for human consumption or to preserve it; 2) Such food contains any artificial flavorings, color additive or chemical preservative (as defined by the Food and Drug Admininstration) or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; 3) Such food is composed of two or more ingredients and one or more of such ingredients could not be represented as natural or a natural food in accordance with this paragraph."

According to the staff, a product containing sugar, whether white or brown, would not qualify. That would eliminate a lot of the self-styled natural cereals that have proliferated in the last few years, such as Nature Valley Granola, labeled "100 precent natural, no additives, no preservatives." The label also says it is "naturally sweetened with brown sugar and honey."

It would also eliminate most of the all-natural ice cream like Brevers and Louis Sherry. But @%ftc does not address itself to the presence of incidental additives that may he used in the manufacture of a product or in the packaging, traces of which can turn up in the product itself. How are they to be handled? Breyers Ice Cream is packed in a carton the lining of which contains BHT, an antioxidant: Trace amounts of the BHT migrate to the ice cream. This fact came to light when some children on the Feingold additive-free diet reacted negatively to the ice cream and queries from parents elicited the information from the manufacturer.

What would happen to the increasing variety of breads describing themselves as natural? ITT-Continental Baking Co. is test marketing Fresh and Natural Bread. Most white bread contains flour which has had more than 20 vitamins and minerals removed in the extensive refining process. A few of those vitamins and minerals removed in the extensive refining process. A few of those vitamins and minerals are returned to the bread through artificial enrichment. Is any white bread natural?

An even greater number of food products use the word "natural" to describe just one ingredient, though the word may be almost as large as the name itself. Mrs. Smith's New Frozen Lowfat Yogurt Pie is Natural Strawberry Flavored (or, as another version of the label has it, Strawberry, Naturally Flavored). In addition to its natural strawberry flavoring, it also contains artificial flavoring, a fact which is disclosed in the list of ingredients in type about one-fifth the size of Natural Strawberry.

On what is called the principal display panel, better known as the front of the box, Unlce Ben's Chicken (or Beef) Flavored Rice is described as being made "with other natural flavors." In the ingredient statement the flavor enhancer, monosodium glutamate, is listed.

At the same time that the packaging for Instant Gatorade Thirst Quencher Mix says the product "contains no fruit juice," it also lists "natural lemon-lime flavor as ingredients."

Orange juice processors have never been pleased that Tang is permitted to be labeled "Natural Orange Flavor." Even though the color of the product is obviously artificial, many people think Tang is powdered orange juice. General Foods counters that the label says "contains no fruit juice," even if the letters are smaller.

Many people mistakenly assume that if a product says "natural flavor" the entire product is made of natural ingredients. This is particularly true of the ice creams. Dozens and dozens of them are labeled "natural flavor" even though, many contain artificial color plus a long list of chemicals which won't have to be listed on the label until July 1 of this year. Even when the ice cream manufacturers are required to list the ingredients on the label, the presence of artificial color will not have to be declared. This is also true for cheese and butter.

Some manufacturers have changed the formulation of their products so they could use natural on the label. Coca-Cola has taken the artificial green color out of Minute Maid Frozen Limeade Concentrate so it could label the product "It's natural."

Potato chips have gone natural or "natural style." Previously many of them had contained a preservative, BHA or BHT. The chips were developed several years ago to counter competition from Pringle's, fabricated from potato granules and packaged in "tennis ball" cans. Today there are several natural potato chips on the market, alon with Wise, whose label says "still made the original natural way9"

Like Wise, several products that are just as natural as they have ever been, have started to use the word natural on their labels. "The Natural Vinegar." They are made from grain-based alcohol while other vinegars may be made from alcohol derived from natural gas and petroleum derivatives.

Brekstone's All Natural Sour Cream is meant to distinguish if from sour creams which contain carrageenan, vegetable gums and dextrose.

Cary's Pure Maple Syrup is labeled "a natural product." Sun Maid Seedless Raisins are "100% natural, no preservatives."

Fisher's describes its unsalted nuts as natural. Its salted nuts are another matter. The salt contains tricalcium phosphate, BHA, and propyl gallate as antioxidants, proplylene glycol and citric acid.

Some foods seem to use the term in self-defense. Taste 'o' Sea fish fillets are described as "Ready to cook Natural Fillets," to distinguish them from fish portions, blocks of frozen fillets that have been stacked together and then cut into individual portions. Some companies call these fish portions, fillets.

Mrs. Paul's Fried Onion Rings are "natural rings from fresh onions," to distinguish, them from onions that have been chopped up and extruded into ring shapes.

Penobscot Baked Stuffed Potatoes are "actual baked potatoes in natural potato skins" because some baked stuffed potatioes are in aluminum shells.

IFT, a society of food scientists and technologosits, most of whom work for the food industry, is fed up with all the naturals. It took an unprecedented step of issuing a set of "Advertising Guidelines for Dealing with Technical Issues regarding Food Safety & Nutrition" last year.

IFT's president, Dr. Bernard Schweigert, acknowledges "that there is a segement of the population which wants to buy foods which has a minimum of processing and we accept marketing efforts to provide product infomation to help these consumers make the choice. What we do not accept is that next step, which implies that food processing and the use of additives is detrimental to health or nutritional well-being."

According to the guidelines one of the membership's chief concerns is about "claims which state or imply that 'natural' foods are superior to processed foods."

IFT diagrees: "While statements such as '100% natural' or 'no chemicals added' may provide legitimate consumer information (to the extent they are factual), to imply that 'natural' foods are intrinsically safer or nutritionally superior to processed foods is simply not true. . . "

IFT IS PROBABLY WORRYING NEEDLESSLY. THE CONFUSION ENGENDERED BY THE USE AND MISUSE OF A "NATURAL" AND THE INABILITY OF ANYONE TO SET AN APPROPRIATE DEFINITION, WILL PROBABLY NEGATE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE WORD AS A SELLING TOOL. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, Illustration by John Heinly for The Washington Post