Think You Know What ‘Natural’ Means? The FDA Wants You to Share

After more than 20 years, the feds may be getting serious about coming up with a legal definition for the label food makers love to use and abuse.

(Photo: Getty Images; photo illustration: Marc Fusco)

Nov 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Natural.” It’s a word whose worth to food marketers is priceless, the mother of all feel-good labels, seeming to encompass a litany of other adjectives that are as soothing and comforting as a cup of herbal tea: “simple,” “honest,” “wholesome.”

But what does “natural” mean, really, at least when it comes to selling food?

Not a whole heck of a lot.

After years of hedging, the Food and Drug Administration is gearing up to tackle the inordinately complicated process of trying to settle on a legal definition for one of the most seemingly simple words in the English language. On Thursday the agency began accepting public comments on what foods and beverages merit the label “natural”—and, perhaps more important, those that don’t.

Among consumers, rampant confusion appears to exist as to the legal definition of “natural.” For its part, the FDA hasn’t revised its more or less informal guidance on the issue for more than 20 years. As the agency puts it on its website: “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

Yet consumers associate “natural” with a whole lot more than that. In a survey last year, Consumer Reports found that “nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers are misled by the ‘natural’ label and nearly 90 percent expect it to mean much more than it does.” A substantial majority of respondents—more than 60 percent—said they believed “natural” on a packaged-food label meant not only no artificial ingredients but also that no pesticides or chemicals or genetically modified organisms were used in the production of the food.

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Legally, however, “natural” doesn’t technically mean any of those things. As consumers have become more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is processed, a growing number of them have been outraged to discover they’ve essentially been duped. They’ve flooded the courts with lawsuits—more than 200, according to nonprofit Consumers Union—decrying the use of “natural” on products that contain ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup.

The consumer advocacy group has gone so far as to petition the FDA to ban—yes, ban—the use of the word “natural” by food marketers entirely. Why the radical move? It’s a direct response to the push from industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association to even further dilute the absurdly lax quasilegal definition to embrace genetically engineered food, which seems kind of like expanding the definition of “virgin” to include “just a few one-night stands.”

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So what should the word “natural” mean, whether it’s on your eggs or your frozen egg rolls? When Consumer Reports surveyed more than 1,000 Americans to answer that question, it learned:

  • 87 percent believed no artificial materials or chemical should be used during processing
  • 86 percent believed no artificial ingredients or colors should be used
  • 86 percent believed no toxic pesticides should be used
  • 85 percent believed no GMOs should be used

When it comes to meat and poultry—the labeling of which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—more than 80 percent of consumers believed “natural” should mean the animal’s diet did not contain artificial ingredients or GMOs and that the animal was not given antibiotics or other drugs. Two-thirds believed that animals raised for “natural” meat should not be confined indoors.

How long it might take the FDA to come up with a legal definition for “natural” is anyone’s guess. Until then, it’s worth noting that we have a label that means exactly what most consumers think “natural” does: It’s called “organic.”