Ask a Food Lawyer: What does “natural” mean on food labels?

Short answer: Next to nothing.

With the nation finally waking up to the sad reality that truly healthy food doesn’t come in a box, food manufacturers are desperate to keep shoppers fooled into thinking highly processed food products are good for them. How do companies get away with this? Because the federal government lets them.

But it’s not for a lack of trying.

Unlike the “organic” seal, which can only be used on products that meet specific federal standards, a “natural” label on foods is mostly undefined. Three federal agencies have attempted to define the term over the years, but none have succeeded. The Federal Trade Commission started a rulemaking in the 1970s, but later dropped it because they couldn’t find a workable definition.

The Food and Drug Administration took a crack at it in 1991 but eventually punted too. Now the agency claims it is “difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural.’” Instead, FDA has adopted a problematic policy saying it won’t object to using the natural moniker on products not containing “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Not very helpful. While such an informal policy doesn’t have the force of law, labels cannot contain false or misleading claims and on the very rare occasion, FDA has sent food companies warning letters based on a violation of what the agency considers natural.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has its own definition of natural for the food it regulates (meat, poultry, and egg products): minimally processed and excludes artificial flavor or coloring, chemical preservatives, and any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. However, this says nothing about how animals are raised, fed, or treated. The USDA policy does have some role, however, in the agency’s pre-approval of food labels. (FDA does not pre-approve food labels.) In 2009, USDA’s attempt to propose regulations on natural labeling also went nowhere, probably because industry likes the status quo.

And the loose language in the definition has left plenty of leeway for manufacturers to fool consumers. Without a standardized, legally enforceable definition, the result is massive consumer confusion thanks to the label’s widespread use by the food industry. According to a 2009 survey, 50 percent of consumers surveyed found “natural” to be an important or very important indicator of the health of a food product compared to only 35 percent for “organic.” Consumers also mistakenly associate “natural” products more strongly with the absence of artificial ingredients than they do for “organic” products.

Amidst government’s failure to act and growing consumer confusion, private lawyers are stepping in to fill the regulatory gap through lawsuits against companies deceptively using the “natural” label on their food products. Most of these cases involve the use of high fructose corn syrup, genetically engineered ingredients, artificial ingredients or preservatives, or chemical processes or other unnatural ingredients. In addition to changing industry’s behavior, these lawsuits may finally spur agency action to address the “natural” labeling issue once and for all. Meantime, you can assume that a natural label is simply an attempt to confuse you, which is what food makers do best.

Thanks to Neil Thapar for research and drafting assistance. Next up on Ask a Food Lawyer: Why are some foods containing partially hydrogenated oils labeled “zero grams trans fat”? Got a question? Email me:

5 Responses to “Ask a Food Lawyer: What does “natural” mean on food labels?”

  1. [...] | Michele on Google+ | You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own [...]

  2. [...] Ask a Food Lawyer: What does “Natural” Mean on Food Labels: a new feature from Eat Drink Politics takes on some of the legalese that frustrates people’s attempts to eat what’s good for them. Unfortunately, in this case, the short answer says it all: “Next to nothing.” [...]

  3. [...] and is available online for registered users at New Hope here. See other posts on this subject here and [...]

  4. [...] In fact, the “Natural” – even “100% Natural” labels are largely meaningless. (Simon, [...]

  5. It’s a shame to know that when a product is branded ‘natural’ that it can still contain chemical cocktails, and these guys get away with it.

    The problem is these companies are huge, and have the power to fight off the FDA from making changes to their policies. It’s up to the consumer to be a bit more smarter about these things. Thanks for sharing this post and spreading the word and exposing the ‘fine print’.

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