Group defining “natural” kicks into high gear

Group defining “natural” kicks into high gear

Organic is officially defined. Natural is broadly used in finished products but confusion leads to lawsuits. ONHA is trying to fix that. Will consumers buy into it?

The group formed to define the hot-button term “natural” says it may come up with a working definition by year’s end.

The Organic and Natural Health Association says consumer buy-in is paramount for consumer acceptance.

Perhaps surprisingly, it also suggested the term may be flexible depending on the quantity of consumer intake.

“The standard for natural should be the same for food or any other product, you could say. But foods and animal foods are taken in large quantities, thousands of grams, while dietary supplements are taken in small quantities, milligrams, and then consumers have limited contact with household products,” said Michael Lelah, Ph.D., chief research scientist with Mercola who also spent years as technical director at NOW Foods. “Given those categories, we can see different standards being set for different categories, a higher standard with higher consumer contact. We could see that as one possible outcome of this process.”

Association president Todd Harrison, an attorney with the Venable law firm, also based in Washington, D.C., said the group is reaching out to as many stakeholders as it can.

“We need to engage FTC, FDA, state and local authorities, and consumers – consumers in particular need to trust whatever comes out,” said Harrison. “If we don’t do this right, there will continue to be lawsuit after lawsuit. When you engage consumers and consumer groups, that will minimize risk. If you can show a true standard, they’ll apply that standard.”

Alan Lewis, director of special projects at the retail chain Natural Grocers, agreed that consumer buy-in is vital. “The biggest risk of setting a natural standard is that it’s not strong enough and consumers feel betrayed by it once they pull back the sheets and see what it’s really about.”

Driving the need to quickly define the term are a series of lawsuits that are ostensibly working to define “natural” – starting with companies using GMO ingredients – as well as fears of Congressional action, which are seen as favoring the monied special interests (read: big biotech) that want GMOs to count as natural.

When the definition of organic was being discussed back in the late-1990s, biotech interests wanted GMOs to be part of that definition as well. Although courts have ruled that GMOs are clearly not part of a natural definition, regulatory bodies like the FDA see genetically engineered crops as being “substantially equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts. That scares non-GMO advocates.

ONHA, for their part, see tightening organic standards as also part of their mission.

“Is there room for improvement for organic? Is there a future around the evolution of organic?” asked ONHA CEO Karen Howard. “There is an issue around dairy and eggs. There is an issue around soil conservation.”

ONHA treasurer Joe Sandler, who is also counsel at the Organic Consumers Association, agreed with Howard during a meeting Oct. 7 at the SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas. “The priority should be to improve organic, in particular meat, eggs and dairy to ensure more humane practices become the norm,” he said. “When it comes to natural labeling, the concern is that consumers will confuse the term with certified organic, the gold standard. We don’t want to undermine the movement toward the increasing use of organic certification.”

Diving into the natural weeds

The challenge of defining natural has many complex facets, from the farm and animal feed to the finished product itself. Issues include the processing of ingredients like fermentation all the way to sustainability issues including energy and human practices.

“There is a broad spectrum at play,” said Lelah. “On the one side is a narrow, rigid definition whereby perhaps a large percentage of products in natural health food stores where natural consumers shop – processed foods, dietary supplements, personal care – would be eliminated from meeting that standard. On the other end of the spectrum, a broader definition will allow for a larger percentage of products to fall under the umbrella of natural. There could be gold, silver and bronze categories. We have to get all stakeholders together and have that joint conversation to see where we lie in that standard definition.”

Most vitamins are synthetically manufactured, noted Lelah, but those synthetic vitamins are the exact same chemical form as natural. So these “nature-identical” ingredients could justifiably count as natural.

“Perhaps there’s some expandability in the definition in how we define those particular vitamins,” said Lelah. “There are ingredients that may have the same chemical formula but a different chemical structure, and now you’re going outside the area of natural.”

The group launched and the Twitter hashtag #O&N to get people to engage in the continuing discussion.

What do you think? Will defining "natural" help or hurt the natural products industry? Comment below.

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