A box of powder-cheesed macaroni? Natural! A candy bar? Sure, why not: natural! A can of 7-Up? All natural! A bag of fruit snacks? Just chock full of natural flavor, friend.
The presence of the word “natural” on your food has long guaranteed you one thing: Someone at that food company wanted to write it there. Despite being an extremely evocative bit of ad copy, “natural” is a meaningless designation—and one that the FDA has therefore declined to define.
This November, though, something interesting happened; the agency posted a short notice on its website asking people to send in their own definition of just what “natural” might mean to them. Then, with the period expiring at the end of the year, they just extended that deadline even further, saying they wanted to keep hearing proposed definitions of natural all the way up until this May.
Top Image: 1955 7-up ad for their “Youngest customers in the business” campaign / via Duke University Library’s Digital Collection; Bottom image: Corn on the cob production line / branislavpudar, Shutterstock
“Food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth,” that is how the FDA has long explained why it didn’t want to create any fixed definition for the term. This is a true enough statement, but it certainly didn’t stop “natural”-labeled foods from showing up everywhere.
In fact, the exact opposite became true: The absence of any definition created a vacuum where “natural” can appear on pretty much any label that wants to stick it on there. That’s why candy companies can straight-facedly talk up the “natural” fruit flavors hidden somewhere deep beneath eight layers of sugar. Or why 7-Up was able to unabashedly declare itself an “all-natural” drink option (complete with an ad campaign of sunshine-drenched farmers carefully tending their 7-up trees; truly, nature is bountiful).
Essentially, the FDA now wants to know what on Earth people think it is they’ve been buying all this time when they get these “natural” foods. Though the agency hasn’t said what their intention for this information is yet, presumably, they could end up reverse-engineering an official definition from there—and that would be an excellent thing.
“Natural” doesn’t have any real definition yet, but it’s clear from people’s behavior that they believe it means something—and it’s far better that something has a fixed definition than one made in the moment by someone trying to sell you soda.
In the long term, this could end up being an incredibly important food-labeling change. In the meantime, though, let this serve as your regular reminder: “Natural” food is (literally) whatever you want it to be.
This post was first published on November 11, 2015. It has been updated with the new FDA remarks-closing date on January 5, 2015.
Follow the author at @misra