The term "natural" has always been used pretty loosely in the food industry. Companies generally put it on their products to portray a sense of quality, while consumers assume the items with that claim are made without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or even that they are organic. However, there is no real definition of "natural," and using the term can cause confusion among customers and manufacturers.
Brands have good reason to want to use the term "natural," as it is generally viewed positively by consumers. Three in five U.S. adults agree that carbonated soft drinks made with natural ingredients are healthier, according to Mintel, while more than 60% of consumers say natural meat is healthier, according to Technomic. In response, many companies have been removing added ingredients from their products, such as Campbell's soup, which recently said it will lower the number of ingredients in its soup to 20, down from the current 30, and Kraft Heinz, Nestle and Hershey which have made plans to remove artificial ingredients, colors and preservatives in their products. By doing this, though, does that authorize them to include a "natural" claim on their labels? And if not, what manufacturing changes would warrant such a claim?
That is the question FDA aims to answer by asking for public comment on the use of the term "natural" in the labeling of food products, including dietary supplements. It made the decision to open up the comment period after receiving three citizen petitions asking it define the term "natural" and one asking to prohibit the term "natural" on food labels. It aims to remove some of the ambiguity from the term and limit misleading claims by establishing a definition.
So far, FDA has not attempted to restrict the term "natural," except for added color, synthetic substances and flavors. It states that it considers "natural" to mean "nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there." It also mentions that the term is used in a variety of ways and can have a lot of different meanings, which makes it "non-informative."
The agency also cites a number of lawsuits regarding the term "natural" as a reason to seek comments. FDA is working with USDA to examine the use of the term "natural" in meat, poultry, and egg products, and is considering areas for coordination between FDA and USDA.
FDA seeks to answer a number of questions with its comment period, some of which include:
- Should we define, through rulemaking, the term “natural?” Why or why not?
- Should we prohibit the term “natural” in food labeling? Why or why not?
- If we define the term “natural,” what types of food should be allowed to bear the term “natural?”
- How might we determine whether foods labeled “natural” comply with any criteria for bearing the claim?
Comments must be received on or before Feb. 10, 2016, and can be submitted here.