Food and Behaviour Research

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10 November 2014 - New York Times - F.D.A. Must Define, and Enforce, the Term “Natural”

Robert Lustig and Marsha Cohen

Whenever food comes with a health claim on its label, exercise caution. The rules of commercial speech allow companies to say things that are meaningless and misleading.

Perhaps the most pernicious of all health claims is "natural." The term is highly confusing to consumers, many of whom conflate it with the word "organic," a term defined by law, though “natural” is not. Others think it just means “healthy.” 

Is a Dole fruit cup "natural," even though it contains added ascorbic and citric acid, possibly synthetically produced? And what about foods with high-fructose corn syrup? That ingredient came from corn — which is technically “of nature” — but the finished product was made in a lab. Refined sugar is no better. It’s been acidified and bleached. But many would accept sugar as “natural,” despite the scientific evidence that excessive amounts can be harmful. 

And then there is the grey area of "natural flavors," which can simply signify added sugar. For example, there are 11 grams of sugar in a serving of Kashi GoLean Crisp! Toasted Berry Crumble cereal but the box advertises that the product is “naturally sweetened.” Dried cane syrup is the third ingredient (by weight), and both the cranberries and the blueberries are sweetened with cane syrup. Is that still what a consumer defines as "naturally sweetened?"

The F.D.A.’s guidance has no teeth. Without a government definition, “natural” is inherently misleading because consumers purchase products under misconceptions about their contents. But as companies oppose banning the use of the word "natural" as a violation of “commercial speech," the F.D.A. has no choice but to issue an industry-wide definition and then enforce it.

Perhaps the best way to define "natural" would be to define the amount of processing allowed "post-harvesting." The term “organic” refers to how food is grown — "pre-harvesting" — so "natural" could apply to the backend. "Organic" and "natural" foods would overlap, but not entirely. For example, a food grown with pesticides could not be labeled “organic” but it could be deemed "natural." Organic food processed with preservatives could not be labeled "natural."