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What's 'Natural' Food? The Government Isn't Sure And Wants Your Input

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What's 'Natural' Food? The Government Isn't Sure And Wants Your Input

Eating And Health

What's 'Natural' Food? The Government Isn't Sure And Wants Your Input

What's 'Natural' Food? The Government Isn't Sure And Wants Your Input

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/455506222/455657524" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Granola cereals on a shelf in Glenview, Ill. "If the FDA were to create a more strict, more comprehensive definition, it would give manufacturers a lot more guidance on whether or not they could use the term 'natural' on their food products," says lawyer Ivan Wasserman. Tim Boyle/Getty Images hide caption

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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Granola cereals on a shelf in Glenview, Ill. "If the FDA were to create a more strict, more comprehensive definition, it would give manufacturers a lot more guidance on whether or not they could use the term 'natural' on their food products," says lawyer Ivan Wasserman.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration is seeking your input to answer a question: How should the agency define "natural" on food labels?

Disagreement over what "all natural" or "100 percent natural" means has spawned dozens of lawsuits. Consumers have challenged the naturalness of all kinds of food products.

For instance, can a product that contains high fructose corn syrup be labeled as natural? What about products that contain genetically modified ingredients?

The FDA has received three citizen petitions asking for clarification. And, beginning Thursday, the agency will ask us — the public — to weigh in. Comments can be submitted electronically.

As my colleague Dan Charles has reported, developing a comprehensive, legal definition for this buzzword may be tough. After all, saying something is natural is a little bit like saying something is beautiful. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder.

We called up Ivan Wasserman, a lawyer with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Philips who tracks this issue. Our conversation is edited for clarity and length.

The Food and Drug Administration is asking people to weigh in on a definition for the term "natural" on food labels. Will this process lead to a new rule — a codified, legal definition?

By requesting comments, the FDA is obligated to review them. So, [the agency] has certainly taken on a big project in simply announcing this. But it has not announced that it's creating a new rule or definition.

The FDA says it has had a long-standing policy on this issue and has "considered the term 'natural' to mean ... nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source)." So why is there still confusion over what counts as "natural"?

This policy does not address a lot of these newer issues [such as GMO ingredients, or newer ways of processing foods].

If the FDA were to create a more strict, more comprehensive definition, it would give manufacturers a lot more guidance on whether or not they could use the term "natural" on their food products.

There have been a lot of class-action lawsuits brought against companies that have labeled their products as "natural." What are some of the most interesting examples?

Some of the original cases were brought against companies that included high fructose corn syrup in their products — which is obviously an ingredient that comes from corn, but has been processed. And there have been lawsuits against companies for including genetically modified ingredients in their products.

There are a lot of sides to this argument. And I think at the end of this process if the FDA does create a definition for "natural," it's going to be hard to satisfy everyone.

Food companies may also like the looser language since it gives them more wiggle room to use the term "natural." Can you think of any precedents here — in food law — of creating stricter standards for food labels?

Yes: the organic label. If you see the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic seal on a food product, that has a very strict program [and set of rules] on what foods can bear that seal. So there is some precedent. But the term "natural" is a little more vague.

So, there's a challenge here. This is not an easy task. If you were at the FDA, what would you do?

Look for another job [laughs].