Natural potato chips, natural chicken, natural granola, natural beef, natural milk, natural yogurt... plenty of foods are marketed as natural. So what's behind the claim, asks one of my stepdaughter's friends. Well, I suppose that depends on the food, ingredient and agency.
I've heard plenty of folks state categorically that natural doesn't mean a thing because the term isn't regulated. That's not quite the case, but regulatory aspects of the term are, to say the least, a little fuzzy. Add to that the complications of a competitive marketplace, with the organic arena weighing in that the "natural" moniker has little meaning and with other commercial interests trying to tighten the reins on what's allowed under the claim of "natural." Marketplace developments (new products, boycotts, changing consumer preferences, etc.) as well as legal activity, including regulatory action (or lack of action) and lawsuits, have put the natural labeling issue in the press off and on for the past two years.
At the federal level in the United States, the regulations and enforcement for use of the term "natural" are split between two agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
FDA - A Look at "Natural" and High-Fructose Corn Syrup
The FDA has not formally defined the term “natural," but does regulate use of the term as opposed to terms “synthetic” or “artificial" as they specifically apply to flavoring and coloring agents. In 1993,the FDA offered informal policy indicating that “natural” means “nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food."
In a case of marketplace competition, the Sugar Association has taken the Corn Refiners Association to task over use of the term "natural" with high-fructose corn syrup. In July 2008, the FDA sent a letter to the Corn Refiners Association indicating that the agency would not object to use of the term "natural" being on a product containing high-fructose corn syrup produced by a process the Corn Refiners Association refers to as "commonly employed in the corn refining industry." In the letter, the FDA indicated its long-standing policy on use of the term "natural" for ingredients was on a case-by-case basis.
In 2007, a woman, Stacy Hulk, filed a class action lawsuit in New Jersey against Snapple. The case alleged that Snapple violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act by labeling its product "All Natural," though it contained high-fructose corn syrup. In September 2009, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an earlier lower federal court ruling, indicating the FDA labeling regulations did not pre-empt state law. Snapple revised its formula in late 2008, replacing high fructose corn syrup with sugar.
Organic Versus Natural
Certified organic products, regulated through the USDA's National Organic Program, continue to sell well. However, a nationally representative survey published in June by the Shelton Group found that Americans chose "natural" over "organic" when asked, "Which is the best product description to read on a label?"
- "100% natural" -- 31 percent
- "All natural ingredients" -- 25 percent
- "100% organic" -- 14 percent
- "Certified organic ingredients" -- 12 percent
That point, as well as lower costs of non-organic ingredients, hasn't been lost on Dean Foods, which owns White Wave and Horizon. White Wave recently replaced organic soy beans with natural soy beans in all but three of its Silk Soymilk products. Natural Foods Merchandiser reported in July that Horizon introduced two new product lines, Little Blends, a yogurt for toddlers, and Milk Breakers, single servings of milk, both of which are marketed as "natural" but not certified organic. That has raised the ire of some organic consumer activists, including the Organic Consumers Association, which has called for a boycott of both White Wave and Horizon.
USDA - Regulations Currently Under Review
USDA FSIS does regulate use of the term "natural" as it applies to meat and poultry. Meat and poultry labeled as natural must be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients that do not occur naturally in the food. On September 14, 2009, the USDA announced that it would solicit further public comment regarding the voluntary claim "natural" to be used in the labeling of meat and poultry products.The USDA current definition is outlined in the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book:
The term “natural” may be used on labeling for meat products and poultry products, provided the applicant for such labeling demonstrates that:
(1) the product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and (2) the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed. Minimal processing may include: (a) those traditional processes used to make food edible or to preserve it or to make it safe for human consumption, e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, and fermenting, or (b) those physical processes which do not fundamentally alter the raw product and/or which only separate a whole, intact food into component parts, e.g., grinding meat, separating eggs into albumen and yolk, and pressing fruits to produce juices.
Since 2006, FSIS has received a couple of petitions requesting action with regard to "natural"claims. The FSIS has reported the receipt of numerous comments expressing:
Divergent views on what the claim "natural'' as applied to meat and poultry products should mean and, in general, focused on particular ingredients, processing methods, and animal production practices that individual commenters felt should or should not be permitted for meat or poultry products labeled as "natural"...
The comments indicate that there is an overall lack of consensus on both the general or common understanding of what the claim "natural'' means to the industry and to the public and on the approach that FSIS should take to address issues associated with the use of "natural'' claims on the labels of meat and poultry products. Nonetheless, FSIS has concluded that a further solicitation of comments could produce information that would help to clarify and resolve the issues surrounding the "natural'' claim.
To improve the focus of public input, FSIS has requested comments on several issues:
- The Need for Rulemaking
- Sodium Lactate and Other "Multi-Functional'' Ingredients and Food Safety
- Separate Claims for "Natural'' Products and "Natural Ingredients"
- "Non-Traditional'' Food Processing Methods
- "Enhanced'' Products
- "Natural'' and Animal Production Conditions
- Establish a Uniform Federal Definition of "Natural''
- Carbon Monoxide