FDA Guidelines Could Be Changing: Agency Asks For Public's Opinion On What 'Natural' Food Label Should Mean

Natural
Is everything in here as natural as you think? Pixabay Public Domain

Is what you’re eating for lunch “all-natural?” How about that snack claiming to be made from only natural ingredients? Some of the foods we’re eating may claim to be “natural,” but what does that actually mean? No one really knows for sure, including the Food and Drug Administration. That’s why the agency wants to ask us what we think.

Beginning today, the FDA will be accepting comments from the public on how they would like the term “natural” on food labels to be defined. Developing a comprehensive legal definition for the word may be a challenge, but it’s needed. A changing food landscape has contributed to several class-action lawsuits being brought against companies that have labeled their products as “natural,” and increasing pressure for the term to be more specifically defined.

Ivan Wasserman, a lawyer with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Philips tracks the issue, and told NPR that the current term is inadequate for today’s day and age. The FDA currently considers the word to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food, including color additives.

“This policy does not address a lot of these newer issues [such as GMO ingredients, or newer ways of processing foods],” he said.

Wasserman pointed out that there is a precedent for creating stricter standards for food labels with the case of the organic label. He said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal has a very strict set of standards, so consumers know exactly what it means. He concedes that the term “natural” is a little vaguer, though. This leaves the FDA with a considerable undertaking.

“By requesting comments, the FDA is obligated to review them,” Wasserman said. “So, [the agency] has certainly taken on a big project in simply announcing this. But it has not announced that it’s creating a new rule or definition.

FDA is asking for comments on whether it is appropriate to define “natural,” and if so, how the agency should define it. They also ask for opinions on ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, and technologies like pasteurization, irradiation. And genetic modification. The FDA will also consider whether the term should describe any nutritional or health benefits.

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