Misleading “Natural” Food Labels May Soon Be History

Natural food labels, FDA, food labeling, misleading natural food labels, food labeling modernization act, food drug and cosmetic act, Leon kaye, high fructose corn syrup
Beware of natural or naturally on the package!

The only thing natural about about the “natural” label is that such branding, naturally, often confuses consumers. But such misleading terms such as “natural” and “healthy” could soon become history, or at the very least score a makeover. Large food companies have hijacked such terms with dubious results—and never mind the fact “natural” is a loaded term. Is a food product only “natural” if it still has dirt on it after being yanked out of the ground? Is it still natural if ingredients, from whole wheat flour to goji berries to flax seeds, are pulverized, brominated, pasteurized and homogenized?

This labeling mayhem could change if The Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013 becomes law. Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the new legislation at a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday. If passed, the law would revise the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and force companies to become more transparent about their ingredients.

So what could change?

Well, watch for the term “natural” to disappear from packaging. If a food product contains any artificial ingredient, color or flavor, the use of “natural” on packaging would be prohibited. The same goes for any ingredient synthesized but has the same chemical structure as what occurs in nature. Chemical additives such as high fructose syrup, maltodextrin and cocoa processed with alkali would also force companies to nix the natural label. Manufacturers of smoked, pickled and fermented foods, however, would still be able to use “natural” on their packaging as long as the other new requirements were followed.

Watch for the “healthy” label to also decline in use if the law passes. In the case of wheat-based products, the food would not be considered “healthy” if less than half of its weight came from whole grains.

Finally, food companies would have to disclose the amount of caffeine in their products if the amount is over 10 milligrams per serving—currently disclosures on products such as energy drinks are often vague.

Whether this law will make a big difference, if at all, is the question. The Secretary of Health and Human Services would be tasked with developing guidelines over how regulations over the use of terms such as “healthy” and “natural” are applied. So while this takes the labeling conundrum out of the hands of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), politics will still have an effect on whether such a change in the law will benefit consumers or not.

As for dietary supplements, this law would not cover them—so much work on labeling transparency still remains to be done.

Nevertheless, this could be a step in the right direction. Companies will of course complain about the “burden of regulation,” but these same food and beverage companies have done a nice job burdening consumers with nebulous labels and dubious health claims. More multinational food companies now wax eloquently how they are purveyors of health, nutrition and wellness. It is time for someone to hold them accountable, and in the end, be more truthful about the ingredients they use. Naturally, consumers could take more responsibility for their health as well—as in shopping around the perimeter of a supermarket instead of those middle aisles that house all these confusing terms and are ground zero for America’s obesity epidemic.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost). He will be based in Abu Dhabi, UAE after October 1.

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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