One of the many labels that you’ll see on food at your local food-buying store is “natural.” What marketers want you to think is that “natural” products lack artificial flavor or color additives or preservatives, and maybe even that they’re made with organic ingredients. What it actually means is that the product says “natural” on the label, and that label is probably in shades of tan and light green.
That’s misleading to consumers, who (perhaps naively) expect the words on their food packaging to have a meaning. The Food and Drug Administration has come to realize this, too. They note that there actually is no formal rule about when food marketers are allowed to call something “natural,” though the agency does have a policy of what a “natural” label should say.
The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean 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.
Wouldn’t that mean that if everyone expects Kraft Macaroni & Cheese to contain Yellow #5 food dye, it’s cool for the “natural” label? That could end up as a circular argument. The soft drink Sierra Mist, marketed as “natural,” contains stevia extract, a processed sweetener that most shoppers wouldn’t expect to find in a “natural” beverage.
Our minimally processed colleagues down the hall at Consumer Reports polled a representative sample of Americans on this topic, asking what they think “natural” on a food label actually means. More than 80% of them agreed that a “natural” label should mean that a product isn’t made with synthetic chemicals, artificial additives or colors, toxic pesticides, and genetically modified organisms.
The FDA is reconsidering what “natural” should mean, and wants the public’s input. You can send them your comments until May 10, 2016, or also sign a petition from Consumer Reports that will go to the FDA. The core question is whether the FDA should formally define “natural” and go after companies that violate the rules, or simply ban the term on food packaging altogether, requiring companies to use the organic label, which is government-regulated.