Can you help define the meaning of natural for the FDA?

The biggest debate of the century is here! The statement might be presumptuous but given the spotlight on the food processing industry, it is justified. Americans and the FDA are staring in the face of their biggest riddle: What is the meaning of natural?

A tough yet important question. The word ‘natural’ has assumed importance of mammoth proportions when it comes to food. So isn’t it a little surprising that the term currently means nothing in the marketing of processed foods? This when several studies reveal that 51% of US citizens spent $40 billion every year to purchase ‘natural’ products. The FDA however, is yet to get around to formally defining the term. This oversight has been best used to advantage by the big names in the food processing industry.

The task at hand is a tough one for the FDA. Here’s what the FDA put up on its website: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” So the authority decided to go forth and request the public to weigh in on what should be described as natural. January was to be the last month in which the public could send in their comments. Due to the overwhelming response received, the period was extended to May 10th.  $40 billion worth of chow and just about 24 hours to go.

FDA website has received 4,863 public comments so far. A natural product should ideally be one with natural ingredients, right? But the ingredients that regularly make their way into natural foods are anything but natural. You know those food products of raspberry flavour? Well, the taste is commonly derived from castoreum, a component that is derived from beaver anal glands. A natural amnion acid, L-cysteine key to extending the shelf life of baked products originates from feathers and human hair from barber shops.

Big names in the food industry have been studiously avoiding using the term for the fear of legal disputes. Frito Lay, Pepperidge Farms, Pepsico and Campbell’s Soup are few of the companies that have dropped the name from the packaging, labelling and marketing. In 2009, many food manufacturers were dragged to court for misusing the term natural such as Snapple, Nature Valley, Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs.

Since then the food industry has been stressing on the need for the FDA to define the term to avoid endless legal troubles.

Coming back to public comments, many received were theological in nature. One such example, “Natural should be limited to those ingredients that have been created by God.” GMOs, pesticides, chemicals, synthetics seem to be widely perceived as modernity’s sins. Others are of the opinion that natural should be renamed as super organic. Going by this, products that are 100% organic and have zero artificial ingredients. A rather too extreme view? You have 24 hours. That’s ample time to give your 2 cents, right?

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