You can argue about what constitutes a “natural” food product. Lots of people do. But you can’t argue with the definition of "natural." Merriam-Webster defines natural as that which is “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”
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The problem with that, of course, is that it’s not very clear what that means when you’re talking about food.
Consider, if you will, whole grain bread. Bread is obviously made by man. That’s not at issue. The same is true of the flour we use to make bread. Flour is also made by man. We’ve been making it for centuries. Yet most folks consider whole wheat flour to be “natural.”
But industry standards and government regulations tend to be quite specific about what constitutes whole wheat. The Whole Grains Council says that for something to be a whole grain, it must contain the whole grain. Things are a wee bit different in Canada. Whole wheat flour in Canada must contain just 95% of the original grain kernel. Which raises the following sort of question: If I make bread using flour from Canada I cannot sell it as whole wheat bread—but would anyone object if I called that bread “natural” wheat bread?
A similar issue arises from the stevia leaf. In its raw, unprocessed state, the leaves have been used as sweeteners for centuries.
But in recent years processors have taken to isolating the sweetest glycoside molecules in the leaf and building a super sweet extract.
A comparable process creates high-fructose corn syrup from corn.
But how many people would think of such things as “natural”? Not many, it turns out—at least in San Francisco.
Meet me at the Food Court
Lawsuits over the alleged misuse of natural food labels have skyrocketed in recent months. Many of these suits originate in the Bay Area. So many, in fact, that litigators have taken to calling the area “the Food Court.”
Safeway has faced a number of such suits over its Open Nature line of products.
Jamba Juice recently won a round in its fight over natural labeling.
Then, just a few days ago, Cargill decided to settle a similar lawsuit over its Truvia line of sweeteners
Yet the momentum behind the cases seems to be building. Consumers and health activists want the courts to do what the Food and Drug Administration seems unwilling to do—issue hard and fast guidelines on what constitutes natural.
Enter Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey. Earlier this month, Rep. Pallone introduced the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013. The bill, should it become law, would require clear front-of-package labeling on the nutritional value of foods. More specifically, it would set a new standard for natural:
- A food labeled as “natural” would be misbranded if it contains any artificial ingredient, including any artificial flavor, artificial color, synthetic version of a naturally occurring substance, or any ingredient “that has undergone chemical changes” (but not including food that has undergone a traditional process to make it edible, preserve it, or make it safe, and not including a food that has undergone a traditional physical process that does not “fundamentally alter” the food).
Among the early backers of the bill are the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumers Union. In the opposing corner is Grocery Manufacturers Association, which said new labels would "only serve to confuse consumers."
Certainly it's too early to say what will become of this bill. But given the present environment in Washington, it seems that adding new regulations will be a tough sell.
Yet something has to change. It should be clear to the food industry that the present system cannot hold. Consumers and activists won't let this go. And unless the courts rule that class action status is unavailable for plaintiffs in natural-food cases, the lawsuits will only grow.
It's time for the best minds in the food business to come up with a solution—creating labels and terminology that is both clear and marketable. We think it will happen, and it will happen soon. Given how many exceedingly bright people we've met in this business, that's a natural assumption.
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