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‘Natural’: The most meaningless word on your food label?

By Elaine Watson , 28-Feb-2012
Last updated on 02-Mar-2012 at 21:12 GMT

Consumers, the marketers all tell us, want foods that are ‘wholesome’, ‘authentic’, and above all ‘natural’, although few of them can articulate what this means.

And they are not alone. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have not had a good stab at defining ‘natural’ either.

The FDA follows a 1993 policy that states: “[FDA]has not objected to the use of the term[natural]on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

Is FDA 1993 definition very useful?

But what about high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, organic solvents such as hexane, GMOs, pesticides and a whole raft of other ingredients that some stakeholders believe do not belong in a product labeled as ‘all-natural’?

Now many observers would argue – persuasively - that high fructose corn syrup is no more or less natural than sugar from sugar beet (given that both go through some hefty processing from farm to fork) and that trying to pin down something as nebulous as natural is a fool’s errand in the first place.

However, increasing numbers of commentators now believe that a more formal definition would at least ensure that if two manufacturers are both using the term on a product label, it should mean the same thing.

Natural means whatever food manufacturers say it means

So should the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take heed?

Absolutely,” says Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

Why the FDA refuses to take this on is beyond me. Natural is a marketing terms that food manufacturers get to use practically in any way they want. This is not a good situation.”

Confused consumers, happy attorneys?

Scott Martling, who heads up global business development at product development consultancy International Food Network agrees:“Without a clear definition we see manufacturers and retailers taking different positions with this topic.

“We feel that this situation ultimately just leads to more confusion on the consumer’s part.”

It is also leading to lawsuits, notes Justin Prochnow, shareholder at law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP.

"The issue of 'all natural' is a labeling issue to which companies in the food and beverage industries need to pay close attention.

"Because the FDA has declined to formalize a definition of natural, plaintiffs' lawyers have seized upon the opportunity to file lawsuits over the use of 'all natural', knowing that the ultimate decision of whether a product is truly natural or not is one that will often have to be decided by a judge or jury.

"That usually means a long, drawn out case that forces many defendants to settle the case or risk huge legal fees, so the lack of a formal definition of natural is a great situation for plaintiffs' lawyers. For that very reason, most companies in the food and beverage industries would welcome an FDA definition of natural."

At least a clearer definition would be fair and consistent

Fergus Clydesdale, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts, is not sure that ‘natural’ has any meaning from a scientific perspective, but says that “at least a clear definition would let consumers know what is meant and allow food manufacturers to meet their needs”.

Almost two thirds of respondents to a recent FoodNavigator-USA/NutraIngredients-USA poll agreed, and want the FDA to develop a more precise definition, with less than 1% believing its 1993 guidance is sufficiently clear.

But there was also strong support for an industry-led approach that would see trade associations co-ordinate efforts to develop voluntary guidance on natural – perhaps reflecting a belief that the FDA is unlikely to oblige – at least anytime soon.

Big firms don’t want this kind of publicity

One such is the Natural Products Association (NPA), which will release new standards to underpin the use of the word ‘natural’ on meat & poultry products and snacks & cereals this year as part of its Natural Seal certification scheme.

While cynics would argue that firms most likely to play fast and loose with the term ‘natural’ are the least likely to participate in any voluntary certification scheme, this does not mean it is a waste of time, stressed NPA vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs Cara Welch last year.

“The aim of the natural seal initiative is to give companies developing natural products something that shows consumers they have gone the extra mile.”

But she added: “I certainly hope that the bigger branded firms buy into it. Consumers are getting pretty skeptical about natural now; look at all the recent lawsuits over natural and GMOs. These stories are getting a lot of traction and big firms don’t want this kind of publicity.”

DuPont: FDA is unlikely to define natural any time soon

Jennifer Lindsey, director of marketing for DuPont Nutrition & Health in North America, agrees that it is up to the food industry to try and sort this out, because the FDA has probably got bigger fish to fry right now.

She adds: "It’s not likely that we’re going to have any more definitive guidance on natural definitions. It seems clear that the government is not going to provide that, and it is, at least in part, because we’re talking about something that’s very subjective.

“The FDA tries to take an objective approach to clarifying what is generally considered safe, or not safe, for consumption, but we shouldn’t expect that they will ever go further than that.

“It really is for food companies and retailers to decide how best to deliver what their consumers are comfortable with.”

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