Defining Natural: FDA Addresses This Ambiguous Food Label

Once again, the most confusing word on the food label is up for discussion.

Do you ever walk into the grocery store and spend 15 minutes staring at a product labeled “natural”? It looks healthy and it sounds healthy, but what exactly does natural mean? If you’re anything like us, this mind game plagues you on nearly every trip to the market. Luckily, that’s about to change. The US Food and Drug Administration has just announced that they plan on defining the term, which means finally regulating a word plastered on $40.7 billion worth of American food products. From the FDA’s website:

Because of the changing landscape of food ingredients and production, and in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term “natural,” the agency is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products.

The FDA is taking this action in part because it received three Citizen Petitions asking that the agency define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one Citizen Petition asking that the agency prohibit the term “natural” on food labels.  

And while this all sounds like good news, health advocates should know that the FDA has tiptoed around the issue in the past. In 1991, the FDA considered defining the term, but then neglected to do so, reasoning that there was insignificant information to accurately propose a definition. Most recently, in January 2014, the FDA received a request from three federal district court judges asking to define “natural” beyond its non-legally binding definition. This definition states that natural means “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.” After various food industry associations began facing lawsuits over the ambiguity of the term, they’ve requested a more concrete definition. From The Quartz:

All of this brings us to today, when the FDA is once again seeking public comment on the word. Both health advocates and representatives of the food industry say they are happy to move toward a standard definition. The Grocers Manufacturers Association told Quartz the call is “a welcome and necessary step” towards a federal definition. Food attorney Michele Simon also called it a “positive sign”—but noted that a weak definition of “natural” could make it easier to sell more under the claim, rather than less.

And while it’s not certain that a definite term will emerge this time around, there is a glimmer of hope in the fact that we are fueling the important discussion surrounding the American food industry. Photo via iStockamanda-kohrAmanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet via her blog at cozycaravan.com