by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Natural

Jan 29 2016

What does “natural” mean? One more time.

I’ve written repeatedly about the problem of “natural” on food labels, but the issue just doesn’t go away.  It won’t, until the FDA decides to rule on what it means.

Now Consumer Reports has done a survey of public understanding of the term.

The survey reveals that 62% of respondents want foods to be “natural.”   When they see the claim on a food package, they believe it has been verified independently.  Oops.

They also believe that “natural” means no artificial ingredients (correct, according to the FDA’s non-definition) or GMOs (incorrect).  The survey confirms the idea that many people think “natural” is the same as “organic,” which it is not.

Consumers, says Consumer Reports, are naturally confused.  And why wouldn’t we be, given the products labeled as “natural” (see the examples collected by Consumer Reports).

The FDA is currently collecting its own comments on this issue.  You can weigh in until May 15.  Please do. 

Dec 24 2015

The FDA’s question for Christmas Eve: What is “natural?”

The FDA is extending the comment period for the meaning of “natural” on food labels until May 10, 2016.  This, it says, is

In direct response to requests from the public…Due to the complexity of this issue, the FDA is committed to providing the public with more time to submit comments. The FDA will thoroughly review all public comments and information submitted before determining its next steps.

The “complexity of this issue?”  Isn’t it obvious what “natural” means when applied to food—minimally processed with no junk added?

Not a chance.  “Natural” is too valuable a marketing term to forbid its use on highly processed foods.  To wit:

Here, as the agency explains, is what complicates the meaning of “natural”:

The FDA is taking this action in part because it received three Citizen Petitions asking that the agency define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one Citizen Petition asking that the agency prohibit the term “natural” on food labels.  We also note that some Federal courts, as a result of litigation between private parties, have requested administrative determinations from the FDA regarding whether food products containing ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as “natural.”

Are foods containing genetically modified ingredients or HFCS “natural?”

The FDA says

It has long “considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as:

  • Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”
  • If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and
  • How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

If you want to weigh in on this, you now have until May 10 to do so.  Go to http://www.regulations.gov and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box.

Here are the background documents:

May your holidays be happy, healthy, and natural, of course.

Nov 16 2015

FDA is taking comments on “natural”

I’m always indebted to Food-Navigator-USA for spot-on commentary on current food politics.  Here, for example, is Elaine Watson on the FDA’s amazing decision to take comments on the meaning of “natural” on food labels.

Having studiously avoided this food labeling minefield for years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has surprised many in the trade by seeking comments on the definition of a word that has launched a thousand class action lawsuits (well almost): ‘natural’.

Her piece is worth reading for its excellent reporting and interviews with industry stakeholders.

About “natural,” the FDA has said:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now petitions have induced the FDA to seek comments, the first step in its standard rulemaking processes.

Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as:

—Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”

—If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and

—How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

“Appropriate” in this context translates as:  Should high fructose corn syrup be considered “natural?” (The FDA said yes in 2008).   How about GMOs? (the FDA’s position on GMOs is that they are not materially different from any other kind of food).

To file comments on these and other questions,

  • For electronic submissions, go to Regulations.gov and search for docket number FDA-2014-N-1207.
  • For submissions by mail, use the following address. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments.  Division of Dockets Management, HFA-305, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852
Dec 10 2013

Yes, one more post on the meaning of “natural”

At a talk I gave for CQ Roll Call in Washington, DC last week, an audience member asked about the definition of “natural.”  I thought I had said everything there was to say about it (see post from August).  Wrong.

Another member of the audience sent me the definition of “natural” produced by, of all things, the  Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Three federal agencies deal with “natural.”

The FDA

In answer to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?,” the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The USDA

The USDA discusses “natural” in the context of organic foods, in order to distinguish “natural” from organic:

Natural. As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

The ATF

This agency is in charge of regulating alcoholic beverages, largely for tax-collection purposes.  Its “ATF Ruling 85-4” does not actually define the term “natural,” but instead says when ATF takes no exception to its use.

(1) Any grape fruit, citrus or agricultural wine may be designated “natural” if it is made without added alcohol or brandy…No other type of wine may be designated as “natural.”

(2) A distilled spirit may be designated as “natural” if is solely the result of distillation, with or without mingling of the same class and type of spirits or simple filtration which does not alter the class or type of the product.

(3) A malt beverage may be designated “natural” if it is made without adjuncts (additives) other than those additives which do not remain in the finished product, either by precipitating out or by combining with other components of the product and the resulting compound precipitates or is filtered out.

I am not making this up.

CSPI thinks it’s time to phase out the use of “natural.”  OK by me.

Addition: Michele Simon, who blogs at Eat, Drink, Politics, writes (she’s not making this up either):

In fact, ATF is how housed within the Department of Justice.

Historically, ATF had all jurisdiction over alcohol (and was within Treasury), which is where that rule must have come from.

ATF still maintains jurisdiction over criminal activity, but now, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau oversees labeling. That’s housed within Treasury.

This explains the split in 2002 (click here).

Clear as mud? So maybe you can add a fourth agency to your list!

Sep 1 2013

“Natural” on food labels? Ain’t necessarily so…

It’s the first Sunday of the month and time for my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this one, I deal with the annoying “natural” on food labels, a term that the FDA prefers not to define.

Q: I am doing legislative research on food policy for one of my state’s senators on the definition of “natural.” As things stand, it’s difficult for consumers to understand what “natural” means on food labels. How should the FDA define this term so it is accurate and not misleading?

A: I was traveling in New England when your question arrived, and it sent me right to the nearest Hannaford supermarket. Hannaford makes this research easy. Sections everywhere in the store are labeled “organic and natural.”

Organic is no problem. Certified organic products must be made with ingredients raised or grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic modification.

But what are we to make of Honey BBQ All Natural Potato Chips containing 20 ingredients, among them monosodium glutamate, yellow food color, and undoubtedly genetically modified corn and soy, but “no hydrogenated fats and gluten free”? Or Healthy Natural Dog Food containing meat by-products and other such things but “no artificial preservatives, colors or fillers”?

The Food and Drug Administration is not much help. Its answer: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA … has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

If you have made it through all the not’s in this non-definition, you can begin to understand how the FDA can allow high-fructose corn syrup to be “natural.” Even though enzymes, synthetic or not, are required to convert cornstarch to this mixture of glucose and fructose, it does not contain artificial colors or flavors.

But the products I mentioned do. Yellow No. 5 is an artificial color. You must assume that the corn or soy in any “natural” product is genetically modified unless the label says GMO-free or Certified Organic. You may be someone who has a hard time considering GMO ingredients “natural.”

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water” – “calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water) – than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

In the absence of regulation, enter litigation. In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban “natural” claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified. Judges tend to say it’s the FDA’s problem and are calling on the agency to define the term.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for meat and dairy products, has attempted to clarify what it means by “natural.” Its Food Safety and Inspection Service says meat and poultry can be labeled “natural” when they are minimally processed and have no artificial flavorings, colorings or preservatives. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service says “naturally raised” means the meat must come from animals produced with no hormone growth promoters, no antibiotics and no animal by-products.

How about all of the above? And if the public really can’t tell the difference between “natural” and “organic,” the closer the definition of “natural” is to that of “organic,” the less confused they will be.

Perhaps you could advise the senator to begin with the organic standards. And then toss in working definitions that exclude anything synthetic, artificial and more than minimally processed.

You should expect food industry lobbying against this idea to be fierce. But the public will be better served if the compromises in defining “natural” come at the end of the negotiations rather than at the beginning.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Jan 11 2013

The Leanwashing Index: Yes!

I was unfamiliar with the Leanwashing Index, but am delighted to learn about it.  EnviroMedia launched it in 2012 to discourage advertisers from using absurdities to push products.

EnviroMedia explains the inspiration for the Index: the appearance of the word “Superfood” on Lake Superior State University’s 38th annual List of Words to be Banished.

Here’s the 2013 Leanwashing list:

  • Natural
  • Made With
  • Whole Grains
  • Light
  • 100 Calorie

Away with all of them!  (I can think of plenty more.  Send your suggestions to the site.)

Here’s a prime example:

And while we are on the subject of whole grains, you might want to take a look at Colbert’s latest “Thought for Food.”

Enjoy the weekend!

Oct 4 2012

FTC issues advice on “eco” claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for regulating advertising, has just revised its “Green Guide” to eco-labeling.

The FTC warns that

  • Explanations of specific attributes, even when true and substantiated, will not adequately qualify general environmental marketing claims if an advertisement’s context implies other deceptive claims.
  • Marketers [are] not to imply that any specific benefit is significant if it is, in fact, negligible.
  • If a qualified general claim conveys that a product is more environmentally beneficial overall because of the particular touted benefit, marketers should analyze trade-offs resulting from the benefit to substantiate this claim.

The FTC did this, according to the New York Times, to reduce the confusion caused by the proliferation of eco-labels.

In surveying consumers, the F.T.C. found that products that were promoted as “environmentally friendly” were perceived by consumers to have “specific and far-reaching” benefits, which, the government says, they often did not have.

“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the commission said.

No wonder the public is confused.  The Consumer Reports Greener Choices index of eco-labels goes on for pages, and the international EcoLabel index currently lists 432 icons and programs.

But the FTC guide says nothing about claims that a product is natural, organic, or sustainable.

“Natural” still has no regulatory definition.  Of Natural, the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

“Organic” is defined by the USDA through its National Organic Program.

“Sustainable” has no regulatory definition.

Will the FTC’s guide help alleviate confusion?  Perhaps, if companies follow it.

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 10 2012

Here we go again: what does “natural” mean?

I did an interview with Alexandra Zissu who asked me to define “natural” as applied to foods.  Here’s what I told her:

I think of “natural”–that most overused and deliberately misleading term–to mean foods as nature intended: no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors, and only minimally processed (washing and cutting is OK, treating with nitrates or enzymes is not).

I’ve written about this issue in previous posts.  The FDA still hasn’t done anything to define the term for food labels.  I think it should.

What’s your definition?

Added question: Are GMO foods “natural?”  California courts say no.

Update August 11: Several people have written in to say the California ruling is as yet unsettled.  The website for what’s happening with Prop. 37 is here.  One reader writes:

The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.

Be changed so”all processed foods” reads “some processed foods.”

How this will be interpreted remains to be seen.

 

 

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