By Joyanna Hansen

Consumers navigating grocery store aisles have many choices, and food labels are one way in which food manufacturers compete for attention. The label “all natural” or “100% natural” can be found on diverse food products ranging from peanut butter and cereal to “all natural” sodas, and may bring to mind images of wholesome, minimally processed foods. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responsible for regulating and supervising food production, does not define or regulate use of the label “natural” on food products. Instead, the FDA official policy is that “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” (1) an ambiguous policy that leaves interpretation of “natural” largely up to the food industry.

Without a formal definition of what “natural” means, let’s examine what this label does not mean. First of all, foods containing natural flavors, sweeteners, or other plant-derived substances can be labeled natural. In addition, foods containing highly processed high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can also be labeled “natural”, since the synthetic materials used to generate HFCS are not incorporated into the final product (2). Finally, foods containing genetically engineered or modified ingredients can be labeled “natural,” something California’s recently defeated Proposition 37 tried to prevent (3). Although far from an exhaustive list of what can be labeled a “natural” food, these are a few examples of how “natural” may mean something different than consumers think.

In contrast to the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does regulate use of the word “natural” when applied to meat, poultry, and eggs, stating that a “natural” food is “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed” (4). Although consumers purchasing “natural” meat, poultry, and eggs can be confident that there are no artificial ingredients or colors added, it’s important to note that “natural” does not necessarily mean hormone-free or antibiotic-free; these are separate labels, also regulated by the USDA.

Unlike “natural,” which has no clear definition, use of the “organic” food label and seal is strictly regulated by the National Organic Program, which is administered through the USDA. Foods with an organic seal are certified organic and contain at least 95% organic content (5). Organic food is produced using approved organic farming methods “that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Specifically, “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” to produce organic food, meaning that organic food products are not genetically modified and have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers (5).

Unless the FDA adopts a stricter definition of “natural,” consumers trying to make informed decisions should be wary of the “natural” food label and pay close attention to ingredient lists, or choose organic foods that have been produced through a closely regulated process.

References
1.    What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food? FDA.gov. Retrieved Feb. 7, 2013 from http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214868.htm.
2.    Crowley, L. (2008, July 8). HFCS is natural, says FDA in a letter. Foodnavigator-usa.com. Retrieved Feb. 7, 2013 from http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Business/HFCS-is-natural-says-FDA-in-a-letter
3.    Sifferlin, A. (2012, Nov. 7). California Fails to Pass GM Foods Labeling Initiative. TIME.com. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2013
4.    Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms (last modified April 12, 2011). USDA.gov. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2013 from http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FACTSheets/Meat_&_Poultry_Labeling_Terms/index.asp#14.
5.    National Organic Program (last modified Oct. 17, 2012). USA.gov. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2013.