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Industry should develop working definition of ‘natural’ if FDA won’t, expert

By Elaine Watson , 25-Oct-2011

A co-ordinated 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.

Karen Duester – president of the Food Consulting Company – was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA following the publication of a report from the Cornucopia Institute accusing cereal firms of duping shoppers with their own “self-serving” definitions of ‘natural’ in the absence of any legal criteria.

Given that the oft-used and much-maligned term was also at the center of several class action lawsuits, it was easy to see why pinning a definition down was not in some firms’ interests, she said.

Could the GMA and the FMI play a role?

However, given that the Food and Drug Administration was not expected to provide further guidance on this topic any time soon it would be helpful if the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) or the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) took the lead and tried to clarify the issue via voluntary guidance, she said.

“It’s something we are constantly asked about. We’ve got the FDA’s 1993 guidance, which says natural means no artificial color, flavors or synthetic substances and must be used in a way that is truthful and not misleading.”

What about HFCS, modified starch and GMOs?

She added: “But this doesn’t address things like the use of high fructose corn syrup, enriched flour, modified starch, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, organic solvents such as hexane for extracting certain ingredients, genetically engineered ingredients, and pesticides.

“As a result, individual retailers have come up with their own rules for suppliers, which are all slightly different, from Whole Foods Market to Costco or Trader Joe’s. In my view this is a place where the FMI and the GMA could work together as they have with front-of-pack nutrition labeling.”

Kellogg: ‘We stand by our claims’

Food manufacturers have repeatedly got into hot water over their use of the term natural, with Kashi (Kellogg) and ConAgra recently served with class action lawsuits accusing them of misleading consumers with their ‘natural’ claims.

A Kashi spokesman would not be drawn by questions about ‘natural’ definitions or whether a legal definition would be helpful, but said it stood by its claims.

“At Kashi, we provide comprehensive information about our foods to enable people to make well-informed choices and we stand behind our advertising and labeling practices.”

Meaningless marketing hype?

In its recent report, ‘Cereal Crimes: How ‘Natural’ Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label, the Cornucopia Institute said: “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.”

The lobby group, which claims to represent small-scale and organic farming interests, added: “Natural claims may be profitable, but they are misleading and disingenuous unless the product is certified organic.”