It looks like the government is finally preparing to demystify the term “natural,” a meaningless descriptor found over the years on everything from Cheetos to Crisco. The US Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it wants input on how to define the word, which appears on over $40 billion of food products every year. The recent spike in false-advertising lawsuits surely has something to do with this, plus, the government has received a handful of so-called Citizen Petitions asking it to clarify the label, as well as another demanding a complete ban on the term.
The federal government has already weathered multiple controversies when it comes to interpreting natural, all-natural, and their ilk. When the organic food craze started in the ‘70s, the government tried classifying anything “with no artificial ingredients and only minimal processing” as “natural,” but quickly realized that definition included many, many things. It has tried defining the term several times since — in 1991, and again in 2009 — but it gave up both times, citing a “lack of consensus.” Presently, the FDA says the word loosely means “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food” — about as vague an explanation as exists. Further confusing the situation, the USDA holds that “natural” means meat with minimal processing and no artificial ingredients, but offers a variety of loopholes.
Perhaps not surprising, then, the government says there’s no way to know if this fact-finding mission will yield a legally binding rule until “after it has thoroughly reviewed all public comments and information submitted.”