Quaker Oats is being sued over the big “100% Natural” label on the front of its box. What else is in that bucket o’ oats that makes the label a lie? Nothing, say the plantiffs—it is, indeed, just oats. Their complaint is that the oats were grown using pesticides. That, they claim, should be sufficient to keep the natural label off it.
There’s a much larger issue here than just the oats: it’s that “natural” food doesn’t mean anything—and that’s left the door open to all kinds of claims about what natural is and is not. It works in the opposite direction too. 7-Up, Welch’s Fruit Snacks, Cheetos, and Kraft Mac & Cheese have all at some point laid claim to the “natural” label.
The argument for the FDA not defining natural makes some sense on its surface. Everything we eat has gone through at least a little bit of processing, the agency reasoned, so really nothing counts as “natural.” Fair enough. The problem is that this leaves the definition open for anyone to declare what is or isn’t natural.
That’s why the Quaker Oats lawsuit can call a plain bucket of oats with nothing added to it “unnatural,” while at the same time Chester Cheetah can proclaim his commitment to both an all-natural, whole food diet and his undying affection for Flamin’ Hot cheese powder. There is no contradiction here. Both definitions are equally made up—and both are only able to exist because no pre-existing definition was there to stop them.
Late last fall, the FDA began collecting comments from people on what it was they thought “natural” meant and will keep collecting them right up until the end of this week. Hopefully, this will result in some kind of official definition. Until then, the definition of “natural” is a vacuum. If no official definition transpires, we could end up with one defined by courts and marketing executives instead of scientists.