What Constitutes “Natural” Foods?

Font Size:

The FDA requests information in possible first steps to regulate the term “natural” on food labels.

Font Size:

In any given aisle of a grocery store, consumers can find a variety of “natural” food products, ranging from “all natural” frozen yogurt to “100% natural” granola bars. But what exactly does “natural” mean?

In light of shifting consumer preferences towards healthier eating options, food manufacturers have increasingly employed and benefited from “natural” food labels. But most consumers wrongly believe the “natural” label to indicate specific characteristics, notably the absence of pesticides, artificial ingredients, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  has no regulation defining the term. Given consumer concerns, the agency has invited the public to provide comments about what they think “natural” food means­—or should mean.

The FDA raises a number of questions in its request. Should the FDA define the term “natural,” or should it prohibit its use in food labeling altogether? Or should the agency allow some food categories to bear the term, such as raw agricultural products, single-ingredient foods, or “unprocessed” foods, but not others? The idea of limiting the word “natural” to some food categories but not others raises further questions about the meaning of the terms describing those categories.

The FDA has the authority to regulate food labeling. The Nutrition and Labeling Education Act of 1990 granted the FDA broad powers to regulate health claims on packaging. Although the agency apparently regulates most terms that appear on food labels, it has yet to exercise its congressional authority to define “natural.”

The agency has a longstanding, though non-binding, interpretation construing “natural” products as excluding food containing added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. However, the policy does not consider processing or manufacturing methods, which critics suggest may result in “natural” food ingredients grown with toxic pesticides, synthetic chemicals, or GMOs.

Three citizen petitions prompted the agency, working alongside the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to explore officially defining the potentially false and misleading term.

The first, from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, requested that the FDA issue a regulation declaring that it is neither false nor misleading to label a food as “natural” merely because the food is a product of biotechnology—that is, when the food contains GMOs. In light of the FDA’s alleged view that GMOs do not meaningfully differ from their “more traditional counterparts,” the trade association argued that their proposed definition was consistent and logical.

The Consumers Union, on the other hand, expressed concerns that most consumers are misled by the term “natural,” thinking that it means that no toxic pesticides, artificial ingredients, chemicals, or GMOs have been used in the food production of food with that label. The group requested that the term “natural” be prohibited from food labels altogether.

Lastly, both the Sugar Association and a now-defunct consumer goods company, the Sara Lee Corporation, requested that the FDA define the term with help from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). The FSIS, which regulates meat and poultry, defines “natural” products as those with no artificial ingredient and minimal processing that “does not fundamentally alter the product.” The two groups asked the FDA to adopt the same definition for all packaged food labels.

Three federal courts also petitioned the FDA to address the term. Under a provision that allows interested parties to petition the agency to take administrative action, the courts referred to the agency the question of whether the term “natural” could be used on labels of foods with GMO ingredients. The FDA declined to make a determination.

Likewise, consumers have filed class-action lawsuits around the country centered on whether the term “natural” included genetically modified ingredients. In one case, plaintiffs won a $9 million settlement for claims arising from deceptively labeled “all natural” products.

Critics of the FDA’s inaction complain that these lawsuits produce inconsistent results and give too much discretion to judges, who lack the expertise to define the term “natural.” This uncertainty for consumers and food manufacturers led the Brookings Institution to recommend that the FDA define the ambiguous term.

Comments can be submitted electronically or by writing on or before February 10, 2016.