Ask a member of the greatest generation what constitutes a natural food, and you’ll probably hear a laundry list of fruits and vegetables. Ask a millennial and the answer would range from Snapple and Fritos bean dip to Goldfish crackers and Silk soy milk. At least, it could. Despite its wholesome connotations, the “natural” label means next to nothing in terms of health.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is surprisingly hands-off when it comes to the semantics of naturalness. Either because it’s politically dicey, or the government agency doesn’t want to dirty its hands with philosophy, the FDA sets only three restrictions in order for food to bear the “natural” label. As a result, advertising executives pounce on the chance to slap the label on their packaging, even if the so-called “natural” ingredients do more damage than the artificial ones.
“From a food science perspective,” the FDA explains, “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.” Not everything is fair game, however. In order to be classified as natural, products must retain their original color and contain no artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
This sounds like a good thing, except what constitutes natural flavors is even murkier. Perhaps the only light at the end of the tunnel is a small, but determined, army of lawsuits seeking to establish a concrete definition. In particular, keep an eye out for a new bill introduced to Congress late last year. In the meantime, consider the lesser evil of organics.