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Just what is 'natural' food?

The word is included on many products despite meaning almost nothing.

November 21, 2012
  • A Colorado lawsuit claims Goldfish crackers shouldn't be labeled as "natural" because they contain genetically engineered soybean oil.
A Colorado lawsuit claims Goldfish crackers shouldn't be labeled… (Los Angeles Times )

The campaign against genetically engineered foods didn't disappear with the defeat of Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of most foods containing bioengineered ingredients. Instead, it morphed into the GMO Inside campaign, which among other things is behind a Colorado lawsuit that claims Goldfish crackers shouldn't be labeled as "natural" because they contain genetically engineered soybean oil.

One provision of California's Proposition 37 would have prohibited bioengineered foods from being labeled as natural. But the measure was so sloppily worded that it could have prevented almost any processed food from using the word.

Many grocery shoppers would not consider a food natural if its genes were tinkered with in a laboratory. By that logic, it might not make sense to consider a tangelo more natural than a genetically engineered ear of corn. Tangerines and grapefruits don't cuddle up in nature; that was accomplished by man. White rice doesn't naturally shed its layer of bran. So does intervention such as cross-fertilization or processing render a food not natural?

PHOTOS: Seven foods, genetically engineered

Until a couple of years ago, Ben & Jerry's ice cream was labeled as natural. Then the company came under pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest because the ice cream contained, among other things, partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Unlike genetically engineered foods, for which there is little if any evidence of harm to human health, partially hydrogenated oil has been implicated as an artery-clogging ingredient to be avoided. And you can bet the soybean oil didn't hydrogenate itself. The company agreed to drop the "natural" label in 2010.

The real issue here isn't whether GMO Inside believes that different methods of human tinkering make some foods less natural than others, but that the reassuring word "natural" is included on many a product's label while meaning almost nothing. A 2009 study found that shoppers thought "natural" indicated a purer, more regulated substance than "organic." It's the other way around. But the whole point of rules for labeling is to allow people to make informed decisions about their food.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has considered defining the term a couple of times, and most recently gave up the effort in 2008. (Perhaps it should have started by trying to figure out what consumers consider natural to mean.) As the examples above show, attempts to regulate use of the word would be complicated, fraught with politics and would almost certainly involve multiple lawsuits by the food industry. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the less-complicated arena of meat and poultry, defines natural as "minimally processed," but that doesn't mean the animals were raised without antibiotics or hormones.)

The only times the FDA generally objects to the word "natural" is when it's used to describe products containing artificial coloring, flavoring or "synthetic substances." Could bioengineered DNA be considered a synthetic substance? Possibly.

Given how far food science has come in recent years, and the fact that consumers are so confused about what natural means that they are being misled by the wording on labels, the FDA should do the admittedly difficult work of deciding what is and isn't natural — or tell food companies to eliminate the term altogether.

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