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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Is That Natural?

Natural seems a simple enough word; the dictionary definition is simple: existing in or formed by nature. If only it were that simple when it comes to the food you buy. You see each governmental agency has its own definition, or lack of one and that can (and does) lead to quite a bit of confusion.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1988 defined natural as: nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to or included in a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food. Since then the industry has asked numerous times for clarification and/or redefinition of the term "natural", but alas to date the FDA has refused.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses a decision tree to determine the natural status of a food (well really just meat, poultry & eggs since those are under their jurisdiction). They ask the following questions:

  1. Does the product contain an artificial flavor, coloring agent, chemical preservative, or any other synthetic or artificial ingredient? If the answer is yes, then the product cannot be labeled as natural.
  2. Are the product and its ingredients minimally processed? If the answer is yes, then the product can be labeled as natural.

Seems like this is pretty straight forward - right? Well, no. Some of the problems here are with defining minimally processed. Does drying, roasting/cooking, lowering pH (adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar), or pressure cooking cause a product to lose it ability to call itself natural? What about microbially fermented products like yogurt, cheese, beer or wine - are these natural? You get the point.

And if those weren't enough to cause confusion, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau had decided they want a voice in this discussion too. They define natural as depending on:

  1. The origin of the ingredients
  2. How the term "natural" is presented in the context of a challenged advertisement
  3. And the reasonable customer expectation as to the meaning of the term "natural"

Ouch! No wonder there is so much confusion about such a simple little word. There is a growing amount of pressure by consumers to have terms such as "natural" standardized and believe me, the industry is on board with that. Sometimes the simple things in life just aren't that simple.

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