If you pulled a food product off the shelf at your local grocery store and the label text read, “natural”, what would be your understanding of that statement?
Most people would view that product to be a formulation of all natural ingredients or a preparation free of synthetic chemicals. Sadly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for protecting and promoting public health in the United States of America, has no definitive definition as to what constitutes a product as being natural. As a result, companies have been using this loophole to falsely market products, with questionable ingredients, as being natural.
At the moment, the FDA uses a non-legally binding definition that outlines “nothing artificial or synthetic”. However, after three Citizen Petitions requesting the agency to define the use of natural on food labels and one Citizen Petition requesting the agency to ban the use of the term on food labels, the FDA opened the door to the public to seek information on whether it is appropriate to define the term natural, and if so, how it should be defined and used on food labels. Over 7,600 comments were received when the inquiry period ended on May 10, 2016.
The FDA will now spend the next several months sorting through these comments and will attempt to reach a definitive definition on the term “natural”. However, the real question that ponders many experts in the food industry now is: will the FDA be able to come to a consensus on a definition?
Defining such an intricate term will not come easy; everyone has their own views on what constitutes to being natural. For example, would nuts, which are naturally sourced, but roasted before packaging into a final product, be considered natural? Technically speaking, the nuts have been processed and are not in their “natural” stage. How will the rule apply to genetically-engineered crops? Again, technically speaking, they are still “natural” crops grown on earth.
There will certainly be some interesting debatable discussions in the FDA boardroom. As we wait to hear back from the government, several food giants including PepsiCo, Frito-Lay and Campbell Soup have already taken precautionary actions in fear of litigation to abolish the use of natural on their food products.The conclusions from this assessment could have a ripple effect on the industry, but in turn, it will help consumers better understand products that they are ingesting.