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The culture and politics of food.

What’s So Bad About ‘Natural’?


Consumers and advocacy groups scrutinize the often misleading term.

A slew of companies including Kashi, Trader Joe’s, and Pepsi have been caught up in lawsuits for deceptive advertising on their products. One of the primary reasons this is occurring is because the FDA does not have a full definition for what actually constitutes a “natural” product, and foods that carry the natural label are therefore not regulated (in contrast to organic food which is regulated). The only restriction is that the products cannot have artificial flavors, colors, or synthetic additives. This means crops that are genetically modified or grown using pesticides qualify as natural. So do meat and dairy products that were raised with antibiotics. The good news is that all three companies have ended up paying out multi-million dollar settlements so in some ways, there actually is a sense of what is not natural. The companies have also changed the wording that appears on their packaging.

The bad news is that pushing the FDA to define the term more stringently seems unlikely according to David Ter Molen, a lawyer who runs a blog on food labeling. He says, “I'd be very surprised if the FDA has any interest in acting on this. This is not a health or safety issue for them.” That’s why Urvashi Rangan, the director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports wants to abolish the word altogether. She believes this is the simplest solution since defining the word and regulating it would be a long and complex process. Consumer Reports is currently sponsoring a petition to be presented to the FDA and the USDA to ban the term “natural.” The petition points out a survey that found an overwhelming number of people believe that natural means the product is free of growth hormones and processed chemicals. So next time you’re walking down the grocery store aisle (even or perhaps especially in the health food section), don’t let yourself get caught up in that enticing word—it may not be so enticing after all.

Photo by I-5 Design & Manufacture, licensed under Creative Commons.