What are “natural” foods? It depends with whom you talk. The term has varied meanings to consumers. Food companies have established definitions to suit their own products. Retail outlets from food stores to health food outlets have their own idea of what “natural” foods may or may not be.
The federal government has no established standards for the use of the term, though guidelines for its use have been proposed in the food advertising regulations of the Federal Trade Commision (FTC), expected to be acted upon by Congress this fall.
But for now the term is up for grabs, and that’s a confusing situation.
“Natural foods are those that do not contain any man-made substances or any chemical preservatives,” says Dick Peterson, a food shopper who seeks out “natural” foods. “Fresca is a totally unnatural drink,” according to Peterson. “I gave up drinking, it when I read the ingredients listed on the can,” he said. “It’s just like Chemistry 101.”
Another consumer also described the term by what it isn’t. In her mind, Jell-O with its artificial coloring, flavoring and sugar, is exemplary.
Others see “natural” as foods which are organically grown with natural fertilizers. Artificial coloring is prohibited in some people’s definition. Added sugar is considered a no-no by others.
Ever since the term natural became a selling point, food companies have tempted shoppers with
products so labeled. But definitions and standards vary among food companies. Quaker Oats, for example, has developed a definition of natural as it applies to its products. It states that “A food or a blend of foods derived entirely from components as they are found in nature (water lost on dehydration excepted) may be considered as natural. Such food or blend of foods may be processed to the extent that inedible or non-nutritive substances are removed, or if only inconsequential amounts of nutrients are removed, or if only the form of the food is changed.”
Pillsbury discourages the use of the term natural when referring to its products, although two of them, bottled apple juice and unbleached flour, are touted as natural. Its use of the term relates to a product that has a minimal amount of processing, or as with unbleached flour, the product is “naturally” aged. Kraft uses the term natural on its cheese products to distinguish them from the processed variety. The company also has a group of dairy products promoted as natural. These products are formulated with ingredients that are not synthesized. “We try to use the term natural only as we think consumers perceive it,” a legal spokesman for the company said.
If the FTC food regulations are adopted as proposed, a standard for the use of the term in advertising would provide these boundaries for determining the claims in food advertising: “Advertising shall not represent that a food is natural or a natural food if: (1) Such food has undergone more than a minimal processing after harvest or slaughter, where minimal processing may include: the removal of inedible substances, the application of physical processes (e.g., cutting, grinding, drying or pulping) that change only the form of the food; and/or processing necessary to make the food edible or safe for human consumption or to preserve it; (2) Such food contains any artificial flavorings, color additive or chemical preservative (as defined by the Food and Drug Administration) or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; (3) Such food is composed of two or more ingredients and one or more of such ingredients could not be represented as natural or a natural food in accordance with this paragraph.”
But these probably are not the final standards for advertising natural foods in the FTC regulations, which also address the use of such terms as energy and calories, organic foods, health foods, fatty acids and cholesterol. The FTC proposal has yet to be modified to reflect the opinions of consumer, food company and health food groups who responded during the public comment period.
There is concern by the FTC staff as well as such groups as the Institute of Food Technologists that if a food is labeled “natural,” it will imply the product is superior to processed foods in terms of nutrient content and safety.
The Department of Agriculture in the state of Maine recently passed a regulation introduced and supported by the organic farmers and gardeners association in the state, which wanted to police their own industry. The law establishes guidelines for the use of the terms natural and organic on food labelling or advertising, and sets down definitions of “minimal processing” and “raw agricultural commodity.”
It prohibits the use of the term health food on product labeling or in advertising, but allows the use of the term to identify a store or restaurant as such. Additionally, it prohibits that a food advertised as natural or organically grown make claims that it is superior in nutrient content or safety.
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In Maine, growers, processors and sellers must keep records of crop locations, additions to soil, ingredients and suppliers for two years after the food is sold and which must be supplied on demand to the State Department of Agriculture.
Enforcement is left to the courts, but there are some loopholes in the law, according to Daniel Harlan, assistant to the commissioner of agriculture. The law allows for certification but does not say who will do the certifying of products. It also states that the Department of Agriculture has no “affirmation obligation” to enforce the regulation. The regulation does not go into effect until January 1980, and Harlan expects some adjustments will need to be made as “we get experience.”
Whatever the outcome of the Maine regulation and the proposed federal guidelines for advertising, it’s likely that fewer products will carry the term “natural” in the future.