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FDA Asks For Consumer Comments On "Natural" Food Labeling

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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The term “natural” on a product label can be very misleading. Some food and beverages labeled “natural” can contain unnatural ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, which a Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) report describes “made through a complex chemical industrial process.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this month that will start taking public comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labeling starting November 12 and lasting through February 10, 2016. The FDA lists several reasons why it is taking comments on the use of the term “natural,” including the “changing landscape of food ingredients and production.” The other reasons include responding directly to consumers’ requests that the FDA look into the use of the term, and class action lawsuits against companies using the term “natural.”

There have been numerous class action lawsuits against companies using the term “natural” on their food labeling including one against Walmart for its “Great Value All Natural Cornstarch.” The lawsuit claimed that the cornstarch’s labeling as “natural was false and deceptive because it led consumers to think that the product really was “all natural” when it actually contained GMOs. Both parties in the lawsuit agreed to a settlement.

Part of the problem with the use of the term “natural” is that the FDA lacks a definition. However, it describes the term natural as meaning 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.” But the federal agency’s policy doesn’t address food processing and manufacturing methods nor does it address whether a food item labeled natural can include health benefits.

However, the FDA does acknowledge on its website that it’s difficult to define a product labeled natural from a food science perspective “because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth." Although the federal agency has a description of the term natural, it lacks an actual definition. “The agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a definition of the term “natural” and it is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” It defines minimal processing as meaning “that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” That definition rules out products with high fructose corn syrup and citric acid. The CSPI report found that in 1992 the FDA sent a warning letter about All Natural Snapple Tea because it contains citric acid which is not considered natural under FDA policy. However, the company today appears “to have ignored or are not aware of that warning,” according to CSPI.

The “natural” food market is growing. From just 2007 to 2008 the market for “natural” foods in the U.S. grew by 10 percent, and the second-most common label on new products was “all natural” in new food products launched in 2008, the CSPI report noted. The report had several recommendations for both the FDA and the USDA. The report recommended that the FDA prohibit use of the term natural on products that contain high fructose corn syrup, and restrict the use of the term natural to foods that don’t contain artificial ingredients and are minimally processed. It recommended that the USDA determine that high fructose corn syrup is not a natural ingredient and that products that contain it can’t be labeled as natural.

The big problem with the label “natural” is that consumer may think the product is more nutritious or has more health benefits. In 2014, Consumer Reports conducted a survey that found almost 60 percent of those polled look for the term “natural” when they buy food. About two-thirds of those polled thought it meant a processed food contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or GMOs.

Image credit Blue Bunny, Flickr

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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