by Larry Carroll
It’s a buzzword you can’t avoid at your local supermarket, restaurant or selecting your snack of choice: All-natural. But what does such a designation truly mean?
Like so much in the average American diet, we look to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to watch out for our better interests.
In the eyes of the 156-year-old USDA, the terms “natural” and “all-natural” are interchangeable. The cabinet-level agency that oversees the American farming industry is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and eggs — and according to the USDA definition, food cannot contain artificial ingredients or preservatives — and must be minimally processed — to qualify as “natural.”
But this is where things can get substantially complicated. For one, the USDA does not conduct inspections to verify the applications of food producers. Furthermore, foods labeled “natural” may contain antibiotics, growth hormones or other chemicals that your average consumer may consider far from “natural.”
Since the rest of our food is covered by the FDA, it’s no surprise that they are also waist-deep in the “natural” debate. In mid-2018, the agency announced that it is close to issuing standards that will define the word.
“I feel strongly that the FDA can do more to assist the American public with creating healthier diets for themselves and their families,” agency commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech (https://www.foodprocessing.com/industrynews/2018/fdas-gottleib-promises-further-steps-on-defining-natural-salt-reduction-goal/), insisting that the claim be made on scientific research and up-to-date nutrition criteria. “We have a real opportunity to reduce the burden of chronic disease through better nutrition. But this is something we can only tackle together, by making better choices easier.”
Ultimately, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what common sense would seem to dictate as “natural” and what is currently allowed onto shelves using the term.
“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling,” the agency said in a statement on its official site requesting comments on use of the term (https://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm456090.htm). “The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that 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.”
The statement then goes on to caution: “This policy was not intended to address 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.”
Which basically means that if you’re looking at “natural” as a word on food packaging that indicates a healthier food alternative, you could be making a grave mistake. It also means that companies can currently throw around the term without much accountability.
But ultimately, any diet that seeks “natural” food seems destined to fail. If you’re consuming apples, grapes and similar fruits and vegetables, even an exclusively organic diet is bound to grapple with some level of pesticides, synthetic foods and GMO concerns. If you choose grass-fed beef, those cattle may have been fed the closest thing to a natural diet as possible — but what have chemicals and factories done to the grass those animals are consuming?
It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and the only thing as bad as an unhealthy body is an unhealthy mind.
After making waves last year with his revelation that the FDA would clarify its stance on “natural” foods, Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently announced his plans to resign (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/05/politics/gottlieb-resigning-fda-health-bn/index.html). Whether the next Commissioner will prioritize the issue remains to be seen — in the meantime, Americans searching for effective, clear-cut ways to live a healthier lifestyle, can only hope that clarification is on the horizon.