National Consumers League

Should the word "natural" be banned from food labels?

According to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “natural” means…very little.  The only guidelines FDA provides are that foods labeled as natural should not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.  These loose guidelines, which were put into effect in 1993 as an informal policy, are puzzling consumers and food manufactures alike.  

So much contention surrounds the word natural that the Grocery Manufacturers Association came out in support of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act introduced in the House last April.  The bill would require FDA to define the term “natural” for use on food and beverage products, finally providing more guidance for industry and consumers. 

The issue with defining the word natural is that it’s difficult to draw a line where natural stops and artificial begins.  Take an apple for example.  That seems to be very natural as it grows directly from the ground and little to no processing occurs but would it still be considered natural if it contained synthetic chemical preservatives?  What about synthetic pesticide residue? Could a very processed food like Bugles be considered “natural” if it was made entirely from products originating from the earth?

Not only was FDA faced with a massive grey zone of “natural” definitions when they first requested comment on the word’s definition twenty years ago, but they also needed to protect first amendment rights and therefore could not prohibit its use altogether.  Ultimately, FDA took a hands off approach.  Labeling practices have become more contentious, with political battles surrounding GMOs and country of origin labeling, and the time has come to address the issue. 

At the end of the day, manufacturers just want to sell their product. Consumers have come to associate the term “natural” with healthy food. And so, food manufacturers continue to label as many foods as possible natural to attract more buyers. The lack of a strict definition for “natural,” however, causes it to be used in a variety of circumstances where it makes unhealthy foods, look healthy or “good” to consumers.  Even if FDA managed to pull together a definition for natural, it would no doubt be abused.  Soda made from cane sugar or other natural ingredients would be deemed “natural” (case in point Seven-Up, which later dropped their 100% natural claims).  The human body doesn’t necessarily process it differently and it certainly isn’t healthy no matter how the ingredients were produced.

Soda is just one example of the many possibilities where natural could be misused.  The term “natural” should simply be banned from labeling.  It carries little to no meaning in terms of its perceived health benefits and should not serve as decision making tool for consumers.