It is little wonder that many people find food labels to be so confusing: they include scientifically determined and regulated information like nutrition facts (e.g., how many calories are in a serving or how much Vitamin C a product contains), but they are also seen by the food industry as a platform for endorsements, claims and promotions that may or may not be backed up by reality. And the distinction between these two types of information is not always very clear.
“Natural” is Popular
One label consumers see a lot of nowadays is the “natural” one. Products of all kinds are labeled with some sort of variation on this theme, from “all-natural” to “made with natural ingredients”. In fact, the “natural” label is the second most widely-used claim on American processed foods today. The reason for this is that it is incredibly popular with consumers, who see “natural” products as being healthier or superior to others.
The fact is, however, that the “natural” label is not closely regulated by the FDA, which has stated that, “From a scientific perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is “natural” because the food has probably been processed and is no longer a product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural….However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”
This is something that many people are becoming aware of and there have been several lawsuits over what can be defined as “natural”. Included in these suits have been Nature Valley, over its granola bars, and Frito-Lay’s Tostitos and Sun Chips over the fact that they use genetically modified grains in their products, which are certainly not “natural”. Cases like this are leading some to believe that if a processed food product of any kind carries a “natural” label, that it is best to just ignore it.
Currently, the FDA is doing little to help sort out this debacle, and its stance on this issue has oftentimes seemed passive at best. However, there appears to be at least a little light at the end of the proverbial tunnel on this issue. A bill called the “Food Labeling Modernization Act” was recently unveiled by several members of the House of Representatives; if passed, this legislation would require a tighter, legal definition of the word “natural” and would exclude products that have been chemically altered. Products banned from being able to use this label would include those with high fructose corn syrup,
chemically altered starches and other similar additives.
In The Meantime…
If this legislation is passed, it could mean a significant change in the way a variety of products are marketed and give consumers more control over what they are purchasing. In the meantime, though, it is best to read the ingredients list of all products carefully before purchasing or better yet, try to avoid processed foods altogether and cook as much as possible from scratch or simply eat fresh products like raw fruits and vegetables. This way, it is possible to know for sure that the food being consumed truly is natural.