Does this sound familiar? You’re at a grocery store trying to decide on which brand of an item you’re going to buy, and then a bright green label pops out at you because it says it’s “natural”. You choose the “natural” item because it must be better/healthier/less artificial than its competitors, right? Would it surprise you to know that being “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean any of those are true?
Unlike “organic”, the term “natural” does not have a legal definition. The FDA interprets “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or man-made has been added to food that wouldn’t be expected in that food, but there is no real regulation in the use of the term. USA Today recently noted seven food items claiming to be natural that contain synthetic ingredients , such as fruit bowls containing potassium sorbate, cheese with cellulose powder, and vegetable oil made from GMO soy.* The International Dairy Foods Association defends the use of cellulose powder in cheese because it is commonly used in cheese and it is a generally approved food additive. But I think we can agree that there is a difference between an additive being “approved” and it being “natural”.
Even though the FDA doesn’t define or regulate the term “natural”, there are some back-end punishments for companies misusing the term. For example, Kashi recently agreed to pay $3.99 million to settle a false advertising lawsuit for using the term “all natural” on products containing GMOs and added vitamins. This is just one of many examples of consumers striking back at companies they feel are misleading in their labeling and advertisements.
Whether the FDA will ever legally define and restrict the use of the term “natural” is unknown. In the meantime consumers will have to be wary of “natural” products by reading ingredient labels and deciding for themselves if a product meets their expectations as to what belongs in their food.
*Interestingly, organically produced foods may contain certain synthetic ingredients such as potassium carbonate and gelling agents like cellulose gum. For a full list of allowed food additives in organics, visit eCFR.