"All natural" means nothing

October 9, 2013

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

It is a wonderful term, one that beckons consumers: natural. However, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as administered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the word is meaningless. Despite hundreds of court rulings and recent interest by the federal bench, FDA has refused to define it, citing budget restrictions and higher priority projects.

Consequently, marketers of healthy-ingredients take full advantage of the health-halo effect. Consumers often perceive that food products with certain claims, such as "organic" and "natural," are healthier or safer for them. But it ain't necessarily so. All green vegetables contain natural amounts of arsenic. And, as Mark Friedman, MD FACEP FACP and Chief Medical Officer of the telehealth service First Stop Health, notes, even the bubonic plague was "all natural."

Two recent cases sum up the issue. Naked Juice, the darling of the all-natural movement, recently settled "false and misleading" litigation over the use of the word "natural" in their product labeling. While admitting no wrong, they removed the language. Cargill has agreed to settle a proposed class action lawsuit alleging it is misleading shoppers by marketing its Truvia consumer products (which contain stevia extract Reb-A and erythritol) as "natural." The plaintiffs complained the ingredient was "highly processed," not natural. Cargill said Truvia is made from "all natural ingredients" and meets all legal and regulatory requirements.

FDA's bizarre regulatory position is that the Agency has not "objected to the use of the term [natural] on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances." This raises more questions than it answers.

What about yeast, made from fermentation "“ natural or not? What about starch, dextrose, from corn "“ natural or manmade? What about extracting corn syrup from, well, corn? Is Better4U pizza all natural because one variety offers pepperoni? Pepperoni is not a natural ingredient. It is manmade. What is stopping the marketing folks from making simply ridiculous claims such as "all natural" boneless chicken wings? I thought chicken wings had bones. And, what about the 800-pound guerilla question -- Genetically Modified Organisms that are identical to their "all natural" cousins in every way known to modern science? Today GMO foods make up 70 percent of what we eat.

High-end consumers with lots of disposable income are demanding "all natural products." The food industry, knowing FDA will not enforce its labeling policy, has run amok. In the end, the best advice is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

Jeff Nedelman has more than 30 years of experience in various industries, including a stint as a Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and chief lobbyist for the nation's largest food trade association. In all those years, Jeff has learned that the shortest distance between two political points is not a straight line.

Originally published Oct 9, 2013 10:00:11 AM.