The refusal by regulators to provide a formal definition of the term 'natural' will ultimately lead to confusion for consumers and a legal headache for manufacturers.
The quest for natural foods and beverages has burgeoned on the back of an overall consumer move towards healthier nutrition.
According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, 'All Natural' was the third most frequent claim made on food products launched in the US in 2007, appearing on 2,617 products. It ranked fourth most popular claim for beverages, used on 542 items.
In Europe, 878 'All Natural' food products and 509 beverage products were launched last year.
Additionally, the Natural Marketing Institute reported in 2004 that 63 percent of US consumers have a preference for natural foods and beverages. In 2006, a Harris Interactive survey found that 83 percent of people wanted a government definition of the term.
But despite the explosion of the category - especially in North America - and the fact that all evidence points to its continued growth, there are no regulations governing the use of the term 'natural', nor are there any standardized industry guidelines in the US and Europe alike to point manufacturers and marketers in the right direction.
Some European member states, such as the UK, do provide their own guidelines for the term, but this remains an insufficient solution for a market becoming increasingly globalized.
It is only a matter of time, therefore, before the proliferation of different interpretations start to cause serious problems - both for manufacturers and for consumers trying to make informed purchasing decisions.
In fact, food and beverage makers have already been served the hard end of the stick.
Last year, both Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft faced lawsuits after making 'natural' label claims on beverages that contained high fructose corn syrup. Both companies changed the labeling of their products before any legal action was taken.
Cases such as these clearly indicate that there is debate surrounding the use of the term, and not only could that lead to misinformed purchases by consumers, but also to lost time and money for manufacturers.
Nevertheless, the FDA said it has no plans to define the term in the near future, due to limited resources.
The statement, which was made in an interview with this publication, comes after the agency received two petitions to define the term - one from the US industry body Sugar Association, and one from bakery firm Sara Lee.
FDA did not provide a formal response to these petitions, but told FoodNavigator-USA.com that it will not be considering the issue in the near future because "we're not sure how high of an issue it is for consumers".
According to FDA, the only way to push the issue onto its radar screen is if the agency was provided with "consumer research that shows overwhelmingly that people are being misled".
Issues that take priority in the under-resourced agency include health claims, nutrient claims, and anything that can have an impact on consumer health and safety, such as allergen declarations and irradiation labeling.
Although these concerns do indeed have a higher importance as they could involve threats to consumer health, there is no denying that the search for 'natural' is emerging as a priority for consumers, and industry is responding.
Unless some form of guidance is issued in the very near future, we can expect the category growth to come with a host of unwanted baggage.
Lorraine Heller is editor of NutraIngredients-USA.com and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France.
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