What is natural? First wave of comments are in (and hint at the challenge facing the FDA)

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Natural: The most contentious word in food marketing?
Natural: The most contentious word in food marketing?

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The FDA will have its work cut out when it comes to coming up with a workable definition of ‘natural’, if the comments submitted to the FDA thus far are anything to go by. 

The comments – which you can read HERE​ -​ are in response to an FDA call to action​ issued on November 10 inviting views on whether it is appropriate to define ‘natural’ on food labels, and if so, what the definition should be.

The FDA has also asked whether consumers view 'natural' and 'healthy' as "synonymous terms​", and whether shoppers confuse the terms 'natural' and 'organic'.

So far, most of the 781 comments available for viewing in the docket from the 2,110 received are from consumers, with the leading food companies and trade associations likely to request for the comment period to be extended or failing that, submit their views just prior to the Feb 10 deadline.

Down the rabbit hole...

So what can we learn from the comments submitted thus far?

Not much beyond that many consumers are suspicious of the term 'natural' on food labels, but in many cases confident that simply prohibiting its use on products containing ‘chemicals’ would resolve the matter once and for all, a view that might make food scientists snigger, but one that reflects the challenge facing the FDA.

Many of the definitions proposed by consumers also highlight the rabbit hole the ‘natural’ debate can send you into as they rely on words such as ‘chemicals’, ‘artificial’, and ‘processed’, which are almost as difficult to define as the term ‘natural’ itself.   

However, the comments make interesting reading for food marketers, as they reflect a general sense that the less food is ‘meddled’ with the better, coupled with a desire for simpler, less processed, more ‘real’ foods, even if consumers struggle to articulate what this means in practice.

Here is a sample:

“A natural food should be defined as a food without synthetic ingredients (those created in a lab). It should include foods that can be grown in the ground and harvested. It should be a minimally processed as possible and have little to no added sodium. The food should have little to no added sugar. There should be no artificial sweeteners in the food​.”  Sara Rose

“Not really sure why this is an issue, "natural" is exactly that. No GMOs, no radiation, no chemicals of any kind​.” Billie Johnson

If the human food product comes in a box or packet and any of the ingredients have been processed, the term "natural" should never be allowed​.” Michael Levine​ 

“Please consider sweeteners like stevia, aspartame, etc as NOT under the natural label.”Trish Telesco  

“The term natural makes the consumer believe there are no chemicals, GMO, hormones, antibiotics etc. in the foods in which this term is featured. Anything other than real food, made naturally from the earth is misleading​.” Megin Boyles

Food made by God is natural. Food made by a chemical company in the lab is not natural​.” Tracy Molyneux  

 “The term natural means nothing and it should not be allowed on packaging at all… All food is chemical, and all food preparation is chemistry. The term natural is marketing​.” Benjamin McElfresh  

The term "natural" is meaningless for the purposes of food labeling. It gives the impression that this food is somehow healthy or good without providing any actual information about the ingredients or methods of production. It is so open to misinterpretation that it could mean anything at all. It provides a halo for food producers without providing any actual protection or valuable information to consumers. To this extent, it is often downright misleading.It should not be used on any food labels whatsoever.”​  Angela Bowman​  

The FDA should define the term natural the same way the dictionary does: existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind. So no GMOs, no chemicals, no medicines, just plants and animals farmed and harvested through traditional, responsible, environmentally-friendly methods, in the sunshine, supplemented and cared for by farmers like Joel Salatin.
Those who put the word natural on their products need to prove it was produced with no chemicals, no medicines, no synthetic materials, and in harmony with nature.” Anonymous  

“Natural means absolutely nothing in the context of food or product safety; E. coli and other foodborne pathogens are also ‘natural’, as is the venom of a snake or jellyfish (with their own natural injectors, even!), as are asteroids and comets of the outer Solar System. It is functionally useless, a buzzword meaning nothing in particular and should be either banned or *very* clearly defined to remove any ambiguity of the term​.” Anonymous 

“As FDA well understands, many natural substances are harmful and many man-made substances are life-saving, so why should labeling further encourage even greater use of a term that conveys misleading or at best useless information regarding health or safety?”​  Anonymous 

“The term natural should no longer exist. It is more contaminated than some of our food​.” Anonymous 

Do not allow ‘natural’ on packages containing bioengineered, chemically transformed (i.e. hydrogenation), or synthetic material.”Michael Danielson​ 

“The term natural should only refer to the ingredients, not the way the product is processed. The processing (cooking, chilling, packaging) of the product should not be involved, because there is no "natural" way to process anything, so that shouldn't be a factor in this topic​.” Anonymous  

I have hope that the FDA will narrowly define ‘natural’ as I have, but do not have the trust that the term will be defined this way, as the big food conglomerates will most likely lobby the FDA to water it down so that ‘natural’ doesn't really mean anything, just as it doesn't mean anything today​.” John B

“Natural to me means food that is grown without pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, growth hormones and above all GMOs. GMOs cannot be duplicated in nature.” Barry Sullivan, Sullivan Acres

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Posted by willy,

We need to make products more accessible to low income and middle class families, not just those who think they deserve less processed foods because they can afford it.

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Education is needed.

Posted by Didda,

"GMOs cannot be duplicated in nature"
Tell that to the sweet potato. I'm sure nature will be shocked to know that someone thinks it cannot transfer genes around all by itself.

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Remove Natural from all Packaging

Posted by Therese B.,

By putting the word natural on any product the perception is it has more value which drives up the price. We need to make products more accessible to low income and middle class families, not just those who think they deserve less processed foods because they can afford it.

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