The term natural, when it's used on food packaging, means very little.

Consumers may think it's a promise of purity, when in fact it's a marketing term meant to give the illusion of purity. When consumers realize that ingredients made with GMO foods or high fructose corn syrup are in the products labeled "natural" or "all natural," they may feel duped. Some have sued, like the two California mothers who sued General Mills for all the profits they've made on Nature Valley products when they realized the products contained high fructose corn syrup, high maltose corn syrup and maltodextrin.

As consumers have become more aware of the murkiness of the "natural" label, some food manufacturers have been pulling the word from packaging. More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against companies because of GMOs in products labeled "all natural." Consumers aren't just suing; they're asking the FDA to define the term "natural." After receiving "three citizen petitions asking that the agency define the term 'natural' for use in food labeling and one citizen petition asking that the agency prohibit the term 'natural' on food labels" and requests from some federal courts that have ruled on some of these lawsuits, the FDA is starting the process of addressing the term.

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The FDA's current policy concerning the label "natural" is this: A food labeled natural cannot contain anything artificial or synthetic (including color additives) that would not normally be expected in a food. The policy was meant for ingredients, and not to address, as the FDA says, "food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term 'natural' should describe any nutritional or other health benefit."

Now, the FDA wants everyone's input, and it has opened it up to public comment. The agency is looking for information and comments on questions such as:

  • Whether it's appropriate to define the term “natural”
  • If so, how the agency should define “natural”
  • How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

If you have an opinion, let it be heard. You can be sure that food manufacturers will be submitting their own comments and information, as is their right. Their voices will be loud, and as consumers, we need to make our collective voice heard loudly too by taking the time to comment.

To comment online, visit http://www.regulations.gov and type FDA-2014-N-1207 in the search box. To send a letter, include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments and send it to:

Division of Dockets Management

HFA-305
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

This is just the beginning of what will probably be a long and drawn-out process. Regardless of what the outcome is, remember that almost everything declared on front-of-package labeling is there for marketing purposes and meant to entice consumers to purchase it. If you want to really know what's in a particular food, turn the package over and read the nutrition label. It won't give you all the information you might want, but it's the most informative space on a food package by far.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.