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FDA Is Asking for Your Definition of the Term ‘Natural’

Federal courts have requested administrative determinations from the FDA as to whether food products that contain ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as 'natural.' (Image:  quinn.anya via Compfight cc)
Federal courts have requested administrative determinations from the FDA as to whether food products that contain ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as 'natural.' (Image: quinn.anya via Compfight cc)

What does the term “natural” food mean to you? It seems the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no idea, and is now seeking public comment on the use of the term when it comes to food labeling.

After more than 30 years of trying, it seems that the FDA may be finally inching its way toward creating a formal definition of the term “natural.” It has taken three Citizen Petitions and federal courts asking the agency to explore the use of the term.

“Because of the changing landscape of food ingredients and production, and in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term ‘natural,’ the agency is asking the public to provide information and comments on the use of this term in the labeling of human food products,” the FDA wrote on its website.

Federal courts have requested administrative determinations from the FDA, whether food products that contain ingredients produced using genetic engineering or foods containing high fructose corn syrup may be labeled as “natural.”

Even though there is no formal definition for the term “natural,” the FDA states that there is a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. The FDA considers “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic, which includes all color additives, has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.

But the FDA stresses that the policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA had also not considered whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.

The FDA is asking for information and public comment on questions such as:

  • Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”
  • If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and
  • How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

The FDA is accepting public comments from November 12, 2015. To electronically submit comments to the docket, visit http://www.regulations.gov and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box.

Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., executive director and CEO of NPA, said in a news release:

‘NPA strongly supports and welcomes this effort by the FDA to define what can be labeled natural,

because millions of Americans are buying products they think might be natural, but are really not,” according to WholeFoods Magazine.

“While there are several courts waiting for FDA to define the term,” said Fabricant, “we see the need for the federal government to develop one overarching definition for natural, as it is the most litigated claim out there in the natural products industry today.”

Even though a definition of “natural” would not be legally binding in itself, it would however provide the FDA a standard for enforcement. The FDA has made no promises that there will be a hard definition, but many advocates see the request as a step in the right direction. An FDA spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

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