What's 'Natural' Food? The Government Isn't Sure And Wants Your Input

Nov 11, 2015
Originally published on November 15, 2015 5:40 pm

The Food and Drug Administration is seeking your input to answer a question: How should the agency define "natural" on food labels?

Disagreement over what "all natural" or "100 percent natural" means has spawned dozens of lawsuits. Consumers have challenged the naturalness of all kinds of food products.

For instance, can a product that contains high fructose corn syrup be labeled as natural? What about products that contain genetically modified ingredients?

The FDA has received three citizen petitions asking for clarification. And, beginning Thursday, the agency will ask us — the public — to weigh in. Comments can be submitted electronically.

As my colleague Dan Charles has reported, developing a comprehensive, legal definition for this buzzword may be tough. After all, saying something is natural is a little bit like saying something is beautiful. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder.

We called up Ivan Wasserman, a lawyer with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Philips who tracks this issue. Our conversation is edited for clarity and length.

The Food and Drug Administration is asking people to weigh in on a definition for the term "natural" on food labels. Will this process lead to a new rule — a codified, legal definition?

By requesting comments, the FDA is obligated to review them. So, [the agency] has certainly taken on a big project in simply announcing this. But it has not announced that it's creating a new rule or definition.

The FDA says it has had a long-standing policy on this issue and has "considered the term 'natural' to mean ... nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source)." So why is there still confusion over what counts as "natural"?

This policy does not address a lot of these newer issues [such as GMO ingredients, or newer ways of processing foods].

If the FDA were to create a more strict, more comprehensive definition, it would give manufacturers a lot more guidance on whether or not they could use the term "natural" on their food products.

There have been a lot of class-action lawsuits brought against companies that have labeled their products as "natural." What are some of the most interesting examples?

Some of the original cases were brought against companies that included high fructose corn syrup in their products — which is obviously an ingredient that comes from corn, but has been processed. And there have been lawsuits against companies for including genetically modified ingredients in their products.

There are a lot of sides to this argument. And I think at the end of this process if the FDA does create a definition for "natural," it's going to be hard to satisfy everyone.

Food companies may also like the looser language since it gives them more wiggle room to use the term "natural." Can you think of any precedents here — in food law — of creating stricter standards for food labels?

Yes: the organic label. If you see the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic seal on a food product, that has a very strict program [and set of rules] on what foods can bear that seal. So there is some precedent. But the term "natural" is a little more vague.

So, there's a challenge here. This is not an easy task. If you were at the FDA, what would you do?

Look for another job [laughs].

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When it comes to eating well, a food label that says all natural can be confusing. The disagreement over the definition of natural has spawned dozens of lawsuits against food companies. Consumers have challenged that label on all kinds of foods. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that the Food and Drug Administration has a new effort to help define natural.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's not hard to find foods marketed as all-natural. I'm here in my local grocery store, and I've got some packaged cookies that contain high fructose corn syrup. They're branded as natural. Here are some granola bars, some cereals. They could easily contain ingredients from genetically modified crops, but they carry 100 percent natural label too.

The FDA's had kind of a loosey-goosey policy on natural. As long as there's nothing blatantly artificial or synthetic in a product, you can say it's natural. But Ivan Wasserman, a lawyer who specializes in food law, says consumers are increasingly troubled by this label.

IVAN WASSERMAN: Yes. What exactly is natural, what's not natural, what ingredients are natural has gotten very muddled.

AUBREY: The Food and Drug Administration has received three citizen petitions asking for clarification. So tomorrow, the agency will begin taking public comment on whether it should create a stricter, more comprehensive definition of natural. And if so, what should that definition be? Wasserman says this is no easy task.

WASSERMAN: I think if, at the end of this process, the FDA does create a definition, it's hard to believe that it's going to satisfy everyone.

AUBREY: Food companies like the looser definition, but Wasserman says having a tighter one could help everyone understand what counts as natural. He says it'd be similar to the USDA's organic seal. They created comprehensive rules for which foods can be labeled as organic.

WASSERMAN: So there is some precedent.

AUBREY: But giving a legal definition to a common adjective - it's tricky. After all, saying something's natural is a little bit like saying something's beautiful. A lot is in the eye of the beholder. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.