What does the term “natural” mean on a label? Does it mean anything? Should it mean anything? Good questions. And complicated ones, judging from the list of questions the FDA needs your help in answering.
The FDA has resisted defining “natural” in food product labeling, including whether foods that are genetically engineered, or contain genetically engineered ingredients, can use the term. Back in 1991, the agency set out to issue regulations but abandoned the effort and has since held to an informal policy that “natural” means
nothing artificial or synthetic (including 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 the food.
The only official legal requirement for using the description “natural” on a food label is that it not be misleading or false, which is forbidden by the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act of 1938. In that appetite-suppressing way of statutory language, “food” is defined by the Act as
articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, chewing gum, and articles for used for components of any such article.
For regulatory purposes, dietary supplements are also considered foods in most cases.
The FDA’s informal policy leaves many issues unaddressed, including food production methods (such as the previously mentioned genetic engineering), use of pesticides and specific animal husbandry practices (such as non-medical use of antibiotics or caging young calves to make veal). Nor does the informal policy address food processing methods, like thermal technologies, pasteurization, and irradiation. And the FDA’s policy does not answer the question whether “natural” implies any nutritional or other health benefit.
This left the courts without much guidance when consumers brought lawsuits alleging they were misled by foods labeled “natural,” “all natural” or “100% natural.” Food companies have slapped the word on all manner of products that do not usually come to mind when thinking of nature: pizza, soda, cupcakes, cookies, enchiladas, chips, and bean dip. This alleged confusion elicited little sympathy from some judges, who told the plaintiffs to use a little common sense and read the label if they wanted to know what was rolled up in that enchilada.
In 2013, several courts stayed or dismissed class action lawsuits in cases raising the question whether GMO-containing foods can properly be labeled “natural,” pending an answer from the FDA. In response, the FDA declined, saying that it was too busy implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act and other tasks involving public health and safety and that the issue would be better determined if everyone, including the public and other agencies, had input, and not in the context of private litigation.
FTC and FDA tackle “natural”
The FDA regulates labeling of foods, dietary supplements, drugs and cosmetics, but the FTC regulates advertising of those products. Like the FDA, the FTC hasn’t defined “natural,” but rather takes a case-by-case approach, determining in each particular instance whether the use of “natural” in advertising is false or misleading.
On April 12th, the FTC announced four consent decrees and one administrative complaint against companies that market, not food, but skin care products, shampoos, and sunscreens online with claims that their products were “all natural” or “100% natural” (but not just plain old natural). These claims are false, according to the FTC, because the products contain synthetic ingredients.
The consent decrees prohibit misrepresentations that a product is “all-natural” or “100% natural.” In addition, the companies can’t misstate the extent to which any product contains natural or synthetic components, can’t make misleading claims about ingredients or composition, and can’t make deceptive representations about environmental or health benefits. The companies will need “competent and reliable” scientific evidence to substantiate any ingredient-related, environmental or health claims for their products. The complaint against California Naturel, the company that refused to settle with the FTC, seeks similar relief.
Twenty-five years after it took a stab at defining natural, the task is back on the FDA’s plate, prompted, in part, by four citizen petitions, three from the food industry and one from Consumers Union.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association representing the food and consumer packaged goods industry, wants the FDA to issue a regulation saying it’s ok to label foods natural “that are or contain foods derived from biotechnology.” In other words, they don’t want GMO foods barred from using the term.
The consumer goods company Sara Lee Corp. filed a citizen petition asking the FDA to adopt a policy that jibes with that of the USDA, yet a third federal agency having a regulatory say in the use of the word “natural.” The FDA’s and USDA’s jurisdiction over food overlaps in a way that confuses even the experts, so it is small wonder that Sara Lee wants a coordinated policy.
According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, “natural,” when used on meat and poultry products, means
- No synthetic ingredients, including flavoring, coloring or chemical preservatives.
- Not more than minimally processed, meaning traditional processes like smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting are ok, but not solvent extraction, acid hydrolysis, and chemical bleaching.
- Qualified natural claims are ok, such as “all natural ingredients except dextrose and modified food starch.”
- The label must explain just what is meant by “natural”: that the food contains no artificial ingredients and is only minimally processed.
A third food industry petitioner, the Sugar Association, a trade association of sugar manufacturers, also wants consistency among agencies. Not surprisingly, the end result of this would be that sugar could be labeled “natural” because it doesn’t contain any synthetic ingredients and is minimally processed.
Consumers Union, a consumer protection activist organization, on the other hand, wants the FDA to flat out prohibit the term “natural” on food labels altogether. Their petition states that there is a “drastic” difference between the FDA’s position and “what people think the ‘natural’ label should mean.” They want the FDA to promulgate a rule saying
The term “natural,” or any derivation of the term, such as “naturally grown,” naturally sourced” or “from nature,” is vague and misleading and should not be used.
They’ve got stats to back up their position. According to the Consumer Reports National Research Center survey data, most consumers expect it to “mean much more than it does.”
- 66% think natural processed food products mean no toxic pesticides were used
- 65% think no chemicals were used during processing
- 64% think no GMOs were used
Even if that is not the case, consumers think it should be. When asked what they thought the term “natural” should mean,
- 87% believe no artificial materials or chemicals should be used during processing
- 86% believe no artificial ingredients or colors should be used
- 86% believe no toxic pesticides should be used
- 85% believe no GMOS should be used
Thus, in Consumers Union’s view, the food industry wants “natural” to mean something other than what consumers believe it does, or should, mean. Of course, consumers aren’t always well-versed on the actual risks involved when weighing in on matters of food policy. For example, various polls show that 80% or more of consumers support labeling GMOs. But a food preferences survey out of Oklahoma State’s Department of Agricultural Economics asked consumers about a hypothetical policy mandating labels for foods containing DNA. Eighty percent supported that idea too. A follow-up survey asked consumers whether they thought that the statement “all vegetables contain DNA” was true or false. Fifty-two percent said “false.”
FDA needs you
All of this leaves the FDA with a whole bunch of questions and they want the public to help them out. (You can post your comments through May 10th.) Some of the questions have a sort of final-exam-essay-question flavor to them, but bear with me. Here are a few:
- Should we define the term “natural?” Why or why not? [See what I mean?]
- Should we prohibit the term? Why or why not?
- Should only food in its raw or natural state, such as fruits “in their unpeeled natural form” use the term “natural?”
- Should it be allowed on only single ingredient foods, such as bottled water or bagged spinach?
- Should production practices, such as genetic engineering, mutagenesis, hybridization, the use of pesticides, or animal husbandry practices be a factor?
- What data or other information is there on whether consumers associate, confuse, or compare the term “natural” with “healthy”?
- Should manufacturing processes be considered? Should only unprocessed foods be included?
- What can be done to ensure that consumers have a consistent and accurate understanding of the term “natural” in food labeling to ensure that it is not misleading?
Here’s my take: if we expect “natural” to convey that a food is not GMO, was grown without pesticides, how many ingredients it has, what animal husbandry practices were used, whether mutagenesis or hybridization were involved, how it was manufactured or processed and whether it is healthy, we are asking too much of one little seven-letter word.
Synthetic biologist Terry Johnson, who teaches bioengineering at UC Berkeley, seems to agree with Consumers Union that “natural” has become meaningless, and further questions why things made by humans shouldn’t be considered “natural” anyway. In that sensible way of scientists who throw cold water on over-heated hype from people who don’t understand science, he says,
“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.
When speaking of food, “natural” is even slipperier. It has different meanings in different countries, and in the US, the FDA has given up on a meaningful definition of natural food (largely in favor of “organic”, another nebulous term). In Canada, I could market corn as “natural” if I avoid adding or subtracting various things before selling it, but the corn itself is the result of thousands of years of selection by humans, from a plant that wouldn’t exist without human intervention.
I agree that “natural,” as applied to food and other FDA-regulated products, has become virtually meaningless. If a manufacturer thinks it is important to tell consumers that its product is non-GMO, humanely produced, doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or was grown without pesticides, it is free to put that on the label and in advertisements, as long as its truthful and not misleading.
The food, dietary supplement, and cosmetics industries are in a regulatory mess of their own making. They are the ones who’ve been flogging “natural” to mean “healthy” or “safe,” or, at least, “something good,” and they shouldn’t be heard to complain if they’re prevented from further confusing consumers by preventing use of the word in labeling. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” and “synthetic” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Maybe if the FDA banned “natural” it would help dispel that false notion and we could get back to determining a product’s worth on its actual merits: Does it do what it claims? Is it safe?