Politics of the Plate:
“Natural” Lies


Ready for a back-to-school pop quiz? Here goes:

How does the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) define the word “natural” for food products?

Actually, that was a trick question. The agency can’t be bothered to define the term at all.

But that hasn’t stopped manufacturers, eager to bask in the “natural” marketing glow, from shamelessly slapping the word on everything from salad dressing to potato chips. Unlike “organic,” which is legally regulated, “natural,” when seen in the aisles of your local supermarket, can mean pretty much anything the processors like.

Their cynicism, as evidenced during a recent stroll through the fruit juice department of my nearest grocery store, knows no bounds. A citrus drink whose label all but shouted out the word “natural” listed, among its ingredients, caffeine, aspartame, magnesium oxide, potassium bicarbonate, calcium carbonate, and artificial yellow coloring #5.

Is that natural artificial yellow coloring?

Yet, only a few shelves down, I came across another drink bearing a “natural” label, which did seem to be made from ingredients like lemons, sugar, and water. Same claim, very different beverages. Very, very confusing.

Pointing to surveys showing that 83 percent of American consumers want the FDA to come up with regulations governing “natural” claims, industry groups such as the Sugar Association have been lobbying the agency to do something, if only to stop the marketing free-for-all and level the playing field. In response, Geraldine June, head of the Food Labeling Standards Department told the website Natural News last week that her agency hadn’t seen enough evidence that consumers are being misled by the labels for the issue to become a priority.

Then perhaps she could explain the above fruit juice discrepancy.

Or maybe thumb through her own agency’s archives, which indicate that as early as 1993, regulators saw that there was just such a problem and attributed it to “the widespread use of this term, and the evidence that consumers regard many uses of this term as noninformative.” “Noninformative” is bureaucratese for “blatant lies.”

Fifteen years ago, lack of resources was used as an excuse for inaction, according to Natural News. At least Ms. June stays consistent on this point, saying, “The FDA has a limited budget and must prioritize.”

Fair enough. So, as a public service, I am going to provide the FDA with a well-thought-out and practical definition of natural, guaranteed to clear away the confusion. It even has a nice, official tone, and I’m doing all this absolutely free of charge.

“The product does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient or chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.”

Okay, okay, I plagiarized. That definition was stolen verbatim from the USDA’s Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book. It has been in effect since 2005. But the USDA’s jurisdiction in this area is pretty much limited to meat and poultry.

If Ms. June is really interested in making the best use of her limited funds (not to mention protecting consumers from being ripped off), I suggest she temporarily adopt the USDA’s definition of natural until the lexicographers at her agency come up with their own. Just don’t hold your breath.

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