Over the past several years, the term “natural” has come under increasing scrutiny, primarily driven by consumer lawsuits challenging the use of the word on products. These lawsuits are happening because there is not a commonly accepted standard for the term “natural" and how it should be used. Unlike organic, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and USDA have only defined the word very narrowly, if at all. Many parties, including some of the judges in resolution of these lawsuits, have called for an FDA definition of natural, including how to address the use of genetically modified organisms in natural foods. Natural foods are critical to this industry—they are an entry point for consumers and they outnumber certified organic products by a wide margin.
But it's not the FDA that should be concerned with defining the term. Because our industry has the most to gain (and lose) we need to come together to define "natural" starting with food products then other categories including dietary supplements and non-food categories. Historically, natural foods were described as those not containing artificial colorings, flavorings and preservatives. Over time, many other artificial additives have been eliminated from natural foods, including hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners and other synthetic food additives. But, as we know, there's no guarantee.
What if we used organic as the model for defining natural? When we use organic as the starting point, without the agricultural and production requirements for certification, natural foods are defined by production practices. Essentially companies can only use methods similar to what can be accomplished in a consumer’s kitchen, such as heating, roasting, fermentation and extraction with minimal use of synthetic ingredients. If a synthetic ingredient is used that also occurs in nature such as xylitol or ascorbic acid, it could be labeled as “nature-identical” or “occurs in nature." The use and/or labeling of GMOs would be clearly defined. The standard would be developed with industry-wide input and ultimately made available to consumers via the Internet.
For other products categories, such as certain dietary supplements, and for personal care and cleaning products, natural is used differently—typically to describe synthetic materials derived from nature and processes, such as hydrogenation, which are not allowed in natural or organic food production. In addition, there are lists of materials that are not allowed in these products. This alternate use of the term “natural” leaves the potential for consumer confusion. These categories might consider transitioning to a different descriptive term, such as “sustainable” or “ecological,” which better describe the use of synthetic materials derived from nature and would not confuse consumers.
A well-defined natural standard would help the industry differentiate from the conventional world and provide a framework for self-regulation. If the standard is made public, it would curtail consumer lawsuits and preserve the integrity of not just the term but our industry.