What does the term "natural” mean to you? A 2014 Consumer Reports survey found that two-thirds of Americans (out of more than 1,000 surveyed) associate use of the term natural with the absence of artificial colors and flavors, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as well as, in meat products, antibiotics, growth hormones, and other drugs.
However, consumer understanding of the term natural does not match what both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently use the word to mean. Consumers’ vision for the term natural appears to enhance the wholesomeness, and perhaps healthfulness, of products so labeled. The FDA also believes that the term natural is often used by manufacturers to convey that a food is more wholesome, which some consumers translate to mean a healthier food product, as stated in a 1991 proposed rule.
The FDA currently considers the term natural to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in or added to a food product (specifically, no added color and no artificial flavors), but the agency does not have a firm definition for natural. “Natural” labels are also allowed by the USDA on meat, poultry, and egg products if the product doesn’t contain any artificial flavors, colors, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient and if the product is only minimally processed (e.g., smoking, roasting, freezing, drying, fermenting, grinding). In addition, the USDA requires that meat and poultry products labeled “natural” include a brief statement describing what the word means for that product.
As use of the term natural becomes more widespread on product labels, the FDA is again considering a possible definition to improve consumers’ understanding and use of the term in the labeling of human food products. The FDA had considered establishing a definition for the term natural before, in 1991, but the agency’s request for public input at that time did not result in a final definition. The FDA is working with the USDA to consider the two agencies’ use of the word and to look for areas of coordination and collaboration on all human food products, whether jurisdiction falls to the USDA or the FDA.
This possible redefinition is yet another important step toward updated product labeling that the FDA has taken in an effort to improve the nation’s health. The FDA also plans to modify the Nutrition Facts Label to improve consumers’ understanding of the label and, in the long run, improve public health. The FDA’s actions to improve consumer understanding of the Nutrition Facts Label and the terms used to describe—and, therefore, promote—a food product will help consumers make more informed decisions when purchasing foods and beverage for themselves and their families and will hopefully translate into improved public health.
While the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) does not have strong views on how natural should be defined, we do hope that the FDA will be able to define the term (and that all agencies involved will be able to reach consensus on a definition) in a way that helps consumers make better food choices and avoid misleading claims, based on the agency’s current concerns surrounding consumer interpretation of the term and whether it is being used accurately.
It is important that individuals, as well as the public health and prevention communities, take action and share their feedback with the FDA regarding use of the term natural on food products by the May 10, 2016 deadline.