How “natural” is your food?

By Lauren Haas

There is a certain sense of pride when leaving the grocery store with a cart full of healthy food. Customers may have snagged everything on the shelf with the words “natural” and “organic” advertised across them. According to the online non-profit website Consumer Reports, 60 percent of consumers search for products labeled “natural” when grocery shopping.  But are we really buying the healthiest option when we buy “natural”?   What exactly does it mean when a food product is labeled “natural?”

Turns out, even the FDA isn’t sure. “Organic” is clearly defined as a product that “must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity.” But when it comes to the word “natural,” there is no clear definition.  This means any company can simply advertise it on their labels without any strict regulations or enforcement.

The FDA does say, though, they have a long-standing policy on what can be labeled natural.  A food product cannot have anything artificial or synthetic not normally in that food.  This is a broad definition and does not extend to food production methods, such as pesticide use, nor to food processing/manufacturing, like thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.  The FDA also has not addressed whether natural has any health benefits.

These gray areas and lack of clarity result in consumer confusion. Consumers seeking natural products may believe the product does not contain any GMOs, hormones, pesticides, or any artificial ingredients.  Because of this confusion from not just the public, but from the FDA as well, the FDA has received three Citizen Petitions asking them to clearly define the term.  In response, they are holding a comment period until May 10th on their website asking people for information and comments on the use of “natural” in labeling food products.  Consumer Reports is calling for the term to be vetoed all together in labeling.

Ultimately, are you really buying what you expect when choosing a produce that is “natural?” Probably not, considering the term does not have an industry specific definition. According to Cleveland Clinic dietician Kristin Kirkpatrick, the best way to be eating healthy isn’t to look for that label, but rather, buy as little packaged foods as possible.  The less processed foods and more whole foods, the better.

If you would like to add your own comments towards the issue, please go to FDA and search for “Natural in Food Labeling” and the steps are shown there.  The direct link is also available below.


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