Before 1990, the term “organic” didn’t carry any regulatory weight. Which meant that any food product, regardless of how it was grown or produced, could be labeled as such. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, people began to wonder about, not only the quality of their food, but the potential harm its production was having on the environment. As states began to individually fumble with its definition, the FDA became increasingly concerned that, without federal regulation, there was far too much incentive for corporations to make misleading organic claims about their products (pg.6). And so, in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Food Protection Act, creating a national standard for the production and sale of all organic food products.
Now, we don’t need to get into the entire history of the organic food market (which I might say is incredibly interesting), but the important perspective is that of the food producers. The organic food market was beginning to boom and there was a lot of money to be made. Upon it’s federal regulation, there were some hefty hoops for corporations to jump through before being able to add that shiny little “USDA Certified Organic” stamp to their packaging. One of the biggest ones being that the land used to produce the food “must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop.” Food producers couldn’t travel back in time and stop using pesticides on their crops, so what could they do to not fall behind?
This is where the clever term “natural” comes in. Many people find that the word “natural” is synonymous with organic, and to producer’s delight, there was no clear regulatory guidance on its usage. This report from Environmental Nutrition in 1996 states that companies were already “slapping (the natural claim) on food products left and right” only a few years after the regulation of organic.
As mentioned in the same article, the FDA doesn’t “object to companies using this term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” Now, nearly 25 years later, though our food systems have gone through many radical changes, the FDA’s definition for this term has yet to change; meaning that products using GMO ingredients or animal products containing hormones can still technically be labeled as “all natural.”
In 2015 the FDA was finally forced to take action after receiving three citizen’s petitions asking that “natural” be clearly defined and regulated. They opened comments through May of 2016, asking Americans what they thought it should mean. Over 4,000 comments and four years later there’s still no regulation on the matter. Over the years there have been hundreds of cases again food manufacturers for misleading claims, and specifically the use of the term natural.
If not the term “natural”, then what? Food corporations will constantly find ways to ride that regulatory line, so it’s up to us as consumers to learn how to see through it. Honestly, when I go in the store I don’t do a deep dive on every product I buy, and I don’t truly expect anyone to. But anyone who goes into a car dealership knowing nothing about cars should know better than to simply take the word of the car salesman (which I once admittedly did and will be paying for a very long time). We interact with food multiple times a day, so it only seems natural that we should continue getting to know it.
Hopefully the next time you pick up a snack or take a stroll around the grocery store, you’ll take pause and see the label a bit more clearly.