FDA: what (if anything) does "natural" mean?

FDA: what (if anything) does "natural" mean?

To date, the FDA has refused to wade into the murky waters of trying to determine just what "natural" means. Now, however, consumers, the food industry and the courts are asking the FDA to define "natural" and the FDA wants your help.

It's a tough question. If you wander through the supermarket aisles, you'll see chips, cookies, ice cream, enchiladas, pizza and dips labeled "natural" or touting "natural ingredients." Obviously, "natural" (at least as used by these food manufacturers) does not mean "healthy," no matter how much the food industry might want you to think so. 

Consumers Union, among others, wants clarification of the meaning of "natural." According to the Consumer Reports National Research Survey Center, nearly two-thirds of US consumers are mislead by the use of the term "natural" on food labels and "nearly 90 percent expect to 'mean much more than it does.'" For example, of consumers surveyed,

  • 66% think "natural" process food products mean no toxic pesticides were used;
  • 66% think no artificial ingredients or colors were used;
  • 65% think no chemicals were used during processing;
  • 64% think no GMOs were used.

(Apparently, to these consumers, "chemical" has a Food Babian definition.)

That the FDA is just as flummoxed by this issue as consumers is evidenced by its announcement in the Federal Register. Perhaps appropriately, considering the time of year, the announcement has a final exam quality to it. The agency wants your thoughts on such topics as:

  • Should we define, through rulemaking, the term "natural?" Why or why not?
  • Should we prohibit the term "natural" in food labeling? Why or why not?
  • If we define the term "natural," what types of food should be allowed to bear the term "natural?"
  • Should only raw agricultural commodities be able to bear the term? Why or why not?
  • Should only single ingredient foods, e.g., bottled water or bagged spinach, be able to bear the term? Why or why not?
  • If multi-ingredient foods should be able to bear the term, what type(s) of ingredients would disqualify the food from bearing the term? Please explain why such disqualification would be warranted.

And so on.

GMOs are a particularly sticky issue. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), "the voice of more than 300 leading food, beverage and consumer product companies around the world," among others, filed a Citizens Petition with the FDA seeking clarification. To no one's surprise, they want to make sure that GMO ingredients aren't a deal killer for labeling food as "natural:"

"GMA requests that FDA issue a regulation . . . that it is neither false nor misleading to label a food as 'natural' or similar terms solely because the food is or contains a good derived from biotechnology."

Does the fact that a human made an ingredient make it any different from an ingredient made by, for example, a cow? Synthetic biologist Terry Johnson gave some thought to this:

"'Natural' is a word that has been used in so many contexts with so many different meanings that it's become almost impossible to parse. Its most basic usage, to distinguish phenomena that exist only because of humankind from phenomena that don't, presumes that humans are somehow separate from nature, and our works are un- or non-natural when compared to, say, beavers or honeybees."

Maybe this line of reasoning offers the FDA an easy way out. We humans are "natural" so anything we make is "natural," just like any other animal. Label everything as "natural" and the word will become meaningless. Like it is now.

Points of Interest 11/22/2015
Points of Interest 11.20.2015

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