What Is ‘Natural Food?’ The Government May Finally Provide a Definition


The news that the government may start providing a clear definition of “natural foods” is more than three decades in the making. With all the health problems that are plaguing the Black community, including hypertension, diabetes and obesity, it is imperative to follow a healthy diet. Many African-American consumers are looking for healthy alternatives to their favorite foods, which is why knowing which foods are actually natural is important.

You likely see several products in your local grocery store that are labeled “natural,” whether you’re looking for healthy fruit juices or on-the-go snacks. However, you can’t buy into the “natural” description, because there’s always another side of the story when it comes to food. The government does not currently have an official definition for foods that are marketed as “natural.” This means that food suppliers can give this description to their foods without having to deal with harsh penalties. Fortunately, this could soon be a thing of the past.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now trying to figure out exactly how to categorize “natural” foods. This is an indication that the organization is going to be getting more involved with food labeling, which could get pretty complicated. Calling a food natural can mean a number of different things, and this label is found on almost $40.7 billion worth of foods in the United States, according to the Washington Post.

The first time the FDA tried to define the meaning of natural foods was in the 1970s. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to give a more specific definition to the term “natural” and defined a natural food as one that has “no artificial ingredients and only minimal processing.” This proved to be a pretty broad definition, and the FTC took their restriction off natural foods in 1983, according to Quartz. The FTC tried to implement natural food regulation again in 1991, but the organization was unsuccessful.

The FDA, however, takes a look at labeling errors when it comes to deeming a food “natural,” and has issued warning letters to food companies demanding clarification, but only on a case-by-case basis. When a company makes a claim that their food is natural, the FDA uses this definition (which is not yet legally binding: “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

Since food ingredients and their quality are often changing, the FDA’s current definition leaves a lot of unanswered questions, including whether the food items have genetically engineered or modified ingredients. This definition also doesn’t let the consumer know whether the food contains high fructose corn syrup. A number of consumer groups, as well as federal courts have asked the FDA to clarify these key points. This is why the FDA is welcoming input about which foods should be classified as “natural.”

Even when the FDA comes up with a better definition for natural foods, it still won’t be a legally binding description. However, the definition will provide an enforcement standard for food manufacturers to adhere to. A number of health and food advocates think this updated description is definitely a step in the right direction. However, the FDA doesn’t make any promises concerning if or when the new definition will be available.

A spokesperson from the FDA could not be reached for comment.

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