Today is the last day to tell the FDA what “natural” should mean on grocery labels
When you can get a bag of corn puffs covered in cheese dust out of the office vending machine, proudly tagged with a “natural” label, what does the word even mean anymore? The FDA is attempting to decide, and today is your last day to weigh in. The federal agency received three Citizens Petitions asking them to define the term “natural,” as well as another asking that they simply prohibit the use of the word on packages. It’s a metaphysical question that has to be resolved in a material way, amid heated conversations on GMO labeling and the near-continuous hand-wringing over whether organic agriculture is the superior way.
As it stands now, the word “natural” on packaging means, well, nothing. “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,” says the FDA’s official philosophical musing on the matter. The USDA’s standards for organic labeling require that the product contain 95% organic ingredients. The agency excludes salt and water from these percentages because they are considered natural. By this federal definition, the only things anyone can definitively peg as natural are the very building blocks of life. No wonder the FDA is in such a pickle.
One person going deep on the question is religion professor Dr. Alan Levinovitz, who has taken a downright theological approach to the query on NPR. Noting that Americans are spending $40 billion a year on anything that calls itself natural, he writes, “Natural has become the non-denominational version of kosher, and orthodoxy is on the rise.” You can’t argue with that. As people have heard more about the supposed dangers all sorts of three-letter acronyms (e.g., GMO, BPA), high-fructose corn syrup, and gluten, they’ve pivoted toward the perceived safety of the word “natural”—only to find out it doesn’t actually have a standardized meaning when it comes to labeling.
Levinovitz points to the previous times federal agencies have tried to parse exactly what “natural” is: In 1974, the FTC began a nine-year-long deliberation that yielded no decision, and the FDA attempted again in 1991 only to end up at the same dead end. The current discussion was spurred by lawsuits challenging some corporations’ proclaimed naturalness; products containing high-fructose corn syrup, potassium carbonate, and baking powder were all targeted, leading to the current conundrum. Quaker Oats is currently being sued over the label, after lab testing showed traces of the pesticide glyphosate in its oatmeal.
Michael Pollan wrote on the question last year for the New York Times and also noted how philosophical it can get: “Natural” can be understood as good in the context of food, but when used in moral discussions, it tends to connote something more like “traditional.” This again makes the judgment difficult: Is anyone eating processed food not eating “natural” food, and thus a little bit less moral, a little less human?
This issue comes up in a rather pronounced way in discussions of GMOs. While there are a host of socioeconomic and environmental factors around the questions of whether we should be growing and consuming genetically modified foods, the term has come under similar government scrutiny simply from a labeling standpoint. The FDA doesn’t even recognize this acronym we all use, referring to them instead as Genetically Engineered Plants. A bill that would create a labeling standard for these products has been kicking around in Congress to no avail, but the nonprofit Non-GMO Project has its own label that gives your tortilla chips a seal of approval in the meantime. (Individual states are also wrestling with how to approach GMO labeling.)
All of these labels—natural, organic, non-GMO, healthy—prompt fierce debate because of the strange moral distinctions we’ve put on them. We can go back to salt, one of the only ingredients the government can say is natural: Table salt has been demonized; sea salt is the standard; and if you’re really serious about being healthy, you may even go for Himalayan or Celtic sea salt. There’s no measurable scientific difference, but the price and moral high ground are where we make distinctions. The demand to know whether food is truly “natural” is a plea to know whether the prices we’re willing to pay for it and the feel-good feelings we get are justified. We’ll see whether this time’s the charm for the FDA. Soon, Chester Cheetah might not be able to boast of his natural bonafides.