What Is “Natural”? We’re Waiting for the FDA to Decide

What Is “Natural”? We’re Waiting for the FDA to Decide

Natural, in the world of food marketing, essentially means nothing. Walk through a grocery store, and you may find a “natural” granola bar that will be shelf stable for a year, “natural” fruit juice, and plenty of “natural” foods that come in boxes and foil wrapping. “Natural” may conjure ideas of foods free of pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, but that’s not reality. While government agencies have issued definitions of food labeling terms such as “organic” and “trans fats,” for now, in most cases, we are on our own in figuring out what “natural” means.

History and litigation

Food labelers first began to use the term “natural” in the 1970s, when health food began to trend. Surveys showed that shoppers thought “natural” food was free of artificial colors and ingredients, GMOs, and pesticides, and with no FDA guidelines for the term, over the years it has been applied to everything from wine to macaroni and cheese.

The FDA has dawdled on addressing the issues with “natural” for decades. In 1982 the USDA defined “natural” meat and poultry as that containing “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed,” but the FDA failed to come up with its own definition of the term. As a result, consumers have sued food companies over claims that their food is “natural.” This tactic has been somewhat successful, as companies often have had to remove the label from foods containing GMOs, artificial colors and preservatives, and corn syrup. Customers suing producers of “natural” energy bars and cookies—frequent targets of lawsuits—also tend to win. While no definition was put in place, thanks to a litigious consumer base, food products with a long list of ingredients that could sit on a shelf for years now tend to eschew using the “natural” label.

Legal updates site Lexology notes a shift in “natural” claims in 2018. After the FDA announced in 2015 that it was close to issuing a definition of natural (it still hasn’t), legal claims about the terms decreased. However, lawsuits surged in 2018, now targeting specific ingredients that once were assumed to be “natural,” such as synthetic malic acid. Plaintiffs are seeing success, with many judges overruling defendants’ motions to dismiss. In the absence of FDA guidelines on “natural,” legal experts expect to see claims addressing ingredients such as xanthan gum, caramel color, and citric acid.

food labeling

“Natural” speculation

In a recent article for Healthyish, a sub-community of Bon Appétit, writer Leslie Nemo considered possible definitions of “natural” the FDA might publish and how defining the word would affect food labeling. Ms. Nemo posits that the FDA’s “natural” definition could focus on specific ingredients and limit the ways “natural” foods are produced by targeting common practices such as killing bacteria with X-rays and using sewage as fertilizer.

While this type of definition would intersect with the guidelines for “organic,” which already disallows GMOs, radiation, GMOs, and artificial radiation, some experts believe the “natural” definition could have tiers. Like “organic,” food could be “100 % natural,” “natural,” or “made with natural ingredients.” These sub-definitions would stipulate a percentage range of “natural” that foods would have to fall into and force food companies to quantify how “natural” their food is. 

If the FDA defines “natural” along these guidelines, it could change food labeling significantly, according to Ms. Nemo’s article. Foods labeled “natural” could no longer have preservatives, GMOs, and artificial colors that many think already aren’t in the foods. Companies whose foods are questionably “natural” might step up their game and change their processes and ingredients enough to make the foods FDA-approved “natural.” With more detailed labels such as “all natural” and “made with natural ingredients,” shoppers will have a much better idea of how their food is made and what’s in it.

An examination of “natural” litigation shows that some foods might drop the label altogether. Processed foods that would require too much tweaking to become FDA-approved “natural,” along with fruits, vegetables, and grain products that are grown in sludge (which is cheaper than growing in “natural” matter) may no longer come with “natural” claims. The prices of these foods could decrease as well.

Other foods that make the cut may sell better. An economist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that immediately following the advent of the “trans-fat free” label, sales for margarine with that designation increased. New “natural” products also could see strong sales, although the bump from “trans-fat free” label died out in a few years.

However, the FDA has yet to issue a definition of “natural” or indicate exactly when it will. Until then, each brand (excluding those that produce meat, poultry, and eggs) defines “natural” for its own products. Experts advise that consumers research products themselves, learning both about their ingredients and how they are made. With no FDA ruling in place, that’s the only way for consumers to know if what they are eating is “natural” enough.