So What, Exactly, Is Natural?

According to the dictionary, the word “natural” means “having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives.” But when it comes to seeing the word “natural” on a food label, the definition gets much murkier — so much so, in fact, that the FDA (which is currently reviewing the term and how it can define and regulate it) has recently extended its public comment period on the meaning of this word until May 10, 2016.

“Natural” is a term that food manufacturers use liberally, and to good effect. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 62 percent of consumers seek out food labeled “natural.” But a whopping 87 percent said they would not only buy foods labeled “natural,” but also pay more for them, if the term met their expectations. Those expectations include meaning that the so-called natural food is free from pesticides, artificial ingredients or colors and GMOs.

“There is no standardized definition or comprehensive government rules for food concerning what products can be called ‘natural,’” says Ivan Wasserman, an attorney who specializes in federal regulation of labeling and advertising of foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics. “And consequently, over the years there have been hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers who allege that a product labeled ‘natural,’ in their opinion, is not.”

If you want to be part of the process, go to regulations.gov. There you can answer any of the dozen or more questions the FDA is asking and leave your comments on what you’d like to see “natural” mean when it appears on food labels and how you’d like the FDA to regulate it. So far, according to Wasserman, they’ve received about 5,000 comments and could expect to have upward of 50,000 to sort through by the end of the comment period. After that, if the FDA regulators decide to move forward with defining the word, they will propose a definition and open that up to more public comment. In other words, don’t expect any real changes to happen for several years.

In the meantime, you may want to focus on seeking out foods with labels that do mean something — which currently include “USDA Organic” and “Non-GMO Project Verified.” For now, both of those offer better clues to how natural a food is or not than the word “natural” on the label does.

 

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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