FDA asks you what natural should mean on food labels

By Kierra Gray

“If taken in literal terms, very few products offered in a grocery store are ‘natural.’ Most products are highly processed, packages, and sterilized to a degree that is unrepresentative of nature,” one anonymous skeptic told the FDA.  “Labeling a product as ‘natural’ can be misleading to the layperson and should not be used.”

More than 1,900 other people have commented since the Food and Drug Administration opened a portal to seek public feedback on the meaning of the term natural on food labels.

The FDA created the forum in response to four citizen petitions. Three of the petitions asked that the FDA define the term for food labeling and the other wants to prohibit the term on food labels, according to the forum.

When people see the term natural, it comes with a positive connotation, said Isabel Maples, a dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But the connotation has varied meanings, none of them regulated by the FDA.

“Some people look at the term natural and think that it means organic or it’s without pesticides or it contains genetically modified organisms. Actually, the USDA already has a definition for those kinds of things,” said Maples.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture certifies organic labeling for foods  “produced using sustainable agricultural production practices. Not permitted are most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.”

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and… only minimally processed,” is considered natural by the USDA but the label applies to meat and poultry.

There is no general legal definition for the term natural. Because of the positive connotation, consumers may overlook the actual ingredients. said Brandin Bowden, a nutrition educator. He wants consumers to know that the term natural has little federal regulation.

“There are some labels that are regulated by the government and some that have no proper organizations that have created a set of standards that companies have to go by in order to use that label. But a lot of it up to interpretation,” said Bowden.

When it comes to food trucks in Chicago, some will say that they provide all natural and fresh ingredients for their customers. Kyle Kelly, the owner of the Cajun Connoisseur food truck, said that he works to provide a fresh and healthy experience for the consumer with home cooked, natural meals.

“We get days they have been on the train for a couple days or on the truck for a couple days. When it gets here it loses it freshness. We have to add that extra seasonings to our stuff. When I add the seasoning, I believe we are making it better or making it just as good as the original place it comes from,” said Kelly.

As of Tuesday, the FDA has received 2,110 comments so far with people providing their definition of natural. Comments have ranged from requesting the FDA label all products that contain genetically modified organisms to defining natural as anything with a single ingredient.

Jennifer Corbett Dooren, a spokesperson of the FDA, stated that it is too soon to say if regulations will made based on the comments of the user.

“The FDA will not make a decision on whether the agency will engage in rule-making to establish a formal definition or not until after it has thoroughly reviewed all public comments and information submitted,” stated Dooren in an email.

Photo at top: Food truck chefs give their opinion on natural food. (Kierra Gray/MEDILL)