Why "Natural" Is One of the Most Meaningless Words in Food Packaging

Last Updated May 5, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

With the FDA now tackling the confusing landscape of health and nutrition claims on packaged food, one wildly popular claim they are likely to finally address is the catch-all adjective "natural."

Use of this word has multiplied on food products in recent years as manufacturers seek to capitalize on the vague sense of healthy wholesomeness the word evokes. There's natural Cheetos, natural cookies and natural fake juice, to name a few. In fact, packaged foods labeled natural outsold those marked organic by a 4:1 margin in 2008.

The problem here is that, unlike organic, which hews to a clear set of standards, the FDA has never actually created any regulations for what natural actually means. Surveys show that shoppers read the word to mean "more nutritious" and "healthier," even though that might not necessarily be the case, especially when we're talking about Cheetos.

Take fresh meat for instance, which is regulated by the USDA. Even though the USDA has gone farther to define the word natural than the FDA, there's still a world of confusion. The agency, for instance, allows chicken and turkey to be labeled all natural when it's been injected with salty broth. And many consumers would probably be surprised to learn that beef or chicken labeled "natural" doesn't necessarily mean that it has been raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. To guarantee that, the package needs to say "no hormones administered" or "no antibiotics added." There's no question that in a highly industralized food system the line between natural and artificial is impossibly blurry. Even the FDA has trouble figuring it out. In April of 2008, the agency told a trade magazine that it did not consider high fructose corn syrup to be natural, only to reverse its thinking three months later after HFCS maker Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) protested. "We would not object to the use of the term "natural" on a product containing HFCS," the agency wrote in a letter to the Corn Refiners Association.

But that doesn't mean it's a good idea for manufacturers to slap the word natural on products made with high fructose corn syrup. When the makers of 7-UP, Capri Sun and Snapple tried that in recent years, they were threatened with lawsuits and then scrambled to change labels and alter marketing.

According to a Center for Science in the Public Interest report, one current example of a natural HFCS product is Minute Maid Premium All Natural Flavors Berry Punch.

On the bright side, at least natural means more than "kid tested," "doctor recommended" and "lightly sweetened".

Image by Flckr user makelessnoise Related: The Death of High Fructose Corn Syrup

FDA's Flurry of Warning Letters Ends an Era of Audacious Health-Food Claims

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