‘Natural’ not necessarily what nature intended

Posted by
November 29, 2011

Oh boy, all natural! But what does it mean?

Back in September I wrote about food labeling confusion over the simple word “fresh.”

But there’s another popular term used on food packages and labels, and this one is apparently so difficult to define, so amazingly confusing that it has confounded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a very long time. The word is “natural.” Yes, natural, as in “all-natural ingredients” or “natural flavors.” While the FDA doesn’t like to talk about “natural,” food companies sure do. Probably the “natural” claim is one you will notice more than any other. But what does it mean?

It’s only natural, I suppose, that The FDA has resisted providing a clear answer to that question, given all the products that might be affected. In fact, the agency comes right out and says that natural is “difficult” to define, and specifically that “…the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

With that non-definition, the FDA has kept open the floodgates of misleading food claims that use valuable packaging “real estate” to sell you products described as, well, “natural.”

Author and blogger Bruce Bradley, who spent over 15 years marketing for giants such as General Mills and Nabisco, and now blogs about food industry deception, cites numerous examples of bogus “natural” claims in his blog series “All Natural…Really?”

Bradley says, “There is no FDA definition of ‘Natural,’ and in that vacuum, processed food companies have filled the void with their own, self-serving interpretations.”

One of his examples is high fructose corn syrup.

“The truth is,” Bradley writes, “HFCS is anything but natural…the result of an extraordinarily intensive process involving a series of enzymatic and chemical reactions. In fact, as one pro-HFCS group states, ‘the corn undergoes so much processing, and the products of the processes are so removed from corn that there is no detectable corn DNA present in HFCS.’”

In an interesting analysis of one of the Corn Refiners Association’s (CRA) corn maze commercials for HFCS, Bradley notes the use of the term “sugar is sugar,” saying, “by the end of the ad, the CRA has pulled their sleight of hand and renamed HFCS ‘corn sugar.’”

“Corn sugar,” is the less-maligned name that the CRA has set their sights on as the new moniker for HFCS, petitioning the FDA to okay the switch last year.

Is “natural” that hard to define? The USDA apparently didn’t think so, and has ruled that poultry and meat can be labeled “natural” only if it is minimally processed without any coloring, flavorings, preservatives or additives. “Naturally raised” must mean no growth promoters, antibiotics, animal by-products or fish by-products.

If the USDA can say what “natural” is, why can’t the FDA?

That’s a question not only consumers are asking, but manufacturers as well. An article on an industry trade pub web site, foodnavigator-usa.com, says that “A coordinated industry-led effort to produce a working definition of the term ‘natural’ on food packaging would help firms navigate one of the most contentious areas of food marketing, according to one labeling expert.”

Consumer legal action challenging foods hyped as natural include the Kellogg’s-owned Kashi products, two class-action lawsuits against ConAgra for it Wesson cooking oil brand, Snapple, for its use of HFCS (currently removed from Snapple products), and most recently a California woman’s complaint against King Arthur Flour. A recent report by the Cornucopia Institute titled Cereal Crimes: How ‘natural’ claims deceive consumers… stated, “The term ‘natural’ in many instances, constitutes meaningless marketing hype promoted by corporate interests seeking to cash in on the consumer’s desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable manner.”

With all the confusion surrounding the “natural” claim, it looks like there is one group that’s happy with the status quo. Surprise, surprise — it’s the Corn Refiners Association! In a 2006 letter to the FDA in response to a petition from the Sugar Association asking the agency to define the term “natural” for FDA-regulated foods, the CRA said; “FDA has clearly articulated…a reasonable and reliable policy for ‘natural’ claims…consistent with consumer expectations…

This is the same CRA that claims consumers are “confused” about HFCS, and therefor the name of this chemical concoction needs a change to “corn sugar.” (Give the FDA your opinion on this name-switch by clicking here).

Until such time in the distant future when the FDA decides to make a rule differentiating truly natural foods from those which are unnatural, your best bet is to keep on reading labels. If an ingredient doesn’t sound natural to you, it most likely isn’t.