Last year, in response to a petition from Consumer Reports to ban the use of the word “natural” on food packaging, the FDA requested public comments on the use of the term in labeling. When the official public comment window closed in May 2016, the agency had received over 7,500 comments. A year later, there has yet to be any kind of formal statement by the FDA.
Consumer Reports was motivated to request the ban because their research had found that many products labeled “natural” were not natural at all. They gave examples of products they tested, contrasting the description of the packaging with an analysis of the contents. For example, Kraft Natural Cheese contains natamycin which Consumer Reports called an “antifungal…also used as a pesticide”; Del Monte Fruit Naturals contains “artificial preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, which are made from industrial chemicals.”
OnlyOrganic.org offers this comic relief with A Message from The False Advertising Industry:
U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current working definition only considers some aspects of a food, but not everything that is important to consumers: “The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.
However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Safety Inspection Service’s definition is fairly straightforward: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).” It then allows for “no hormones” labeling of beef and “no antibiotics” labeling of red meat and poultry if sufficient documentation is provided to the USDA. The guidelines state that hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. If a producer makes the claim on a label, there must be an accompanying statement that “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
For now, this is all the guidance we can share as we all sit and wait for the FDA to come up with a definition in response to the more than 7,500 people who took the time to provide comments to the agency while they pondered the meaning of “natural.” You can review all of the comments here, Regulations.gov, Your Voice in Federal Decision-Making.
Here are some of my favorite comments:
“Food should be labeled for what It is. Not what it is not.”
“I am a small chemical free farmer located in Missouri and in my mind the term natural when applied to our vegetables means we have grown a crop through natural means such as not using synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. We also have used seeds that are still in a natural state not a GMO. When we tell customers that we have grown our vegetables in a natural way it means that we have had to struggle with fighting nature in a natural way which means it is more costly for us to do but in our minds healthier.”
“NATURAL should mean clean, decent food. Not just a word.”
“The current use of the word “natural” on foods is misleading. Many people do not realize that it means nothing. They think they are buying a product that is healthier for them. It’s deception. Please stop letting these big food companies deceive us into thinking foods are pure and natural when they aren’t. It’s our basic right to know. Also label GMOs as such.”
We would love to hear our reader’s definitions of “natural,” too!!
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