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It's Time To Get Rid of the 'Natural' Label

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Photo:Ewan-M/Flickr/Creative Commons License 


Let's start with a quick scenario: You're in the final grocery store aisle of the day. Your cart's full, the store's packed, and you're quickly getting to that point in your trip where giving up and starting a fortified colony in the frozen foods aisle -- pizza and hot wings as your soldiers -- seems like a reasonable idea. You just want to get the last thing on your list, head into the sludge that's checkout during peak hours, and get the hell out of there.

Standing before you on the shelf are two items, identical in every way save one important feature: One has the word "Natural" written on the box. The other doesn't. Because you just want to stop thinking about food you grab the one with "Natural" off the shelf and drop it in your cart.

Now: Was that an informed decision?

Not particularly. See, the phrase "natural" doesn't mean a whole lot when it comes to box labels. It's not regulated. There is no universal definition. As this Grist.org article points out, the definition of what "natural" means really depends on who you're asking:

A salesperson in the meat department at Shoprite in Chester, N.Y., told me that Tyson's all natural chicken is "basically the same thing" as organic. At General Mills, 100 percent natural means "that all ingredients used are from a natural source and a natural process," though when I asked for clarification on what counts as a "natural process," the customer service agent was out of answers.

Choosing between two products, one with "natural" and one without, is essentially the same as flipping a coin. Unlike phrases like "organic" or "gluten-free," there's no valuable information embedded there that an informed consumer can unlock. It's pure emptiness. The FDA even admits this on their website:

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.

Okay, so the FDA kind of just lets anyone use the phrase as long as there's no "added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." So, just where do GMOs fit in?

That's the question that's going to have to be answered shortly, after the Grocery Manufacturers Association officially asked the FDA to allow foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients to use the "natural" label.

The move comes in response to two occurrences in the current marketplace. First, products that have the "natural" label are selling more, and the GMO-producing and -selling organizations want to get a taste of that action. Second, food manufacturers have recently been getting hit with lawsuits claiming they're using the "all-natural" descriptor falsely. (PepsiCo shelled out $9 million in a class action suit for improper use of the phrase on their Naked line of juices last year.) So, the GMO companies want to get ahead of the mess by getting explicit approval by the FDA.

If they're allowed to use the phrase, however, it will open up a Pandora's Box of labeling issues. How many ingredients can be GMOs and still be considered "natural"? Which ones? What's actually more "natural," a factory farmed-raised chicken or soybeans that have had their genes spliced in a laboratory? The L.A. Times has taken the position that
the FDA needs to stop this from happening because consumers have a certain idea of what "natural" means, and bioengineered products don't fit. My idea, though, is so much simpler:

Eliminate the word entirely.

In its current unregulated incarnation, the word "natural" is nothing more than an advertising slogan. It's on par with "long-lasting" or "instant" or "smooth." And if the public had the same instinctual skepticism that raises their hackles when they view those kinds of phrases, it wouldn't be a problem. But they don't. If you see that word on a box, there's an implied understanding that some stuffy organization, full of pressed suits and horn-rimmed glasses and comb-overs and clipboards, is overseeing the process, making sure every ingredient inside is natural. But such a consortium does not exist. No one's behind the curtain, the pilot has long since parachuted out. It's a phrase without meaning, the sole intention of its use being trickery.

Until there's actually a group (or, at the very least, an agreed-upon definition) in place to govern the word's use, all it does is offer another layer of confusion to the already obstacle-laden food shopping process. The only logical step, then, is taking the word out of the marketplace entirely.

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