Will FDA Save Us from Unhealthy and Unnatural Food?

If you want a glimpse of how people feel about natural and unnatural food, just browse through many thousands of comments that FDA recently received on the matter. And this is just a prelude. The agency hasn’t proposed any rules yet. It hasn’t even decided if it will. FDA just asked for comments on putting the word “natural” on food labeling. And it got an earful.

Much of the feedback sounds like theology. “Natural should be limited to those ingredients that have been created by God” is an example that makes it pretty explicit. Beyond that, you can find plenty of subtler examples.

Consumers put a lot of stock in natural, whole foods, even preferring them over foods that are labeled organic. But the fact is that no standard definition exists for what makes a food natural. The only thing holding big companies back is the threat of getting hit by a lawsuit for deceiving consumers. And — no surprise — that’s been happening more often lately. In fact, many companies are dropping “natural” claims from their products because of the threat of lawsuits.

Consumer advocates want FDA to either ban the claim or come up with a clear definition. Good luck with that. On one hand, the agency could try to stop people from making these claims that consumers want to hear. The other option is to try to define something that has become a sort of pop religion. The third option is what we have now — no definition. People can just fight it out in court.

Recent news about the FDA’s definition of what constitutes a “healthy” food provides some perspective. FDA recently reversed itself in the matter of Kind bars claiming that its products were “healthy.” Based on FDA rules left over from the low-fat-everything era, FDA previously ruled that some company’s products had too much fat to be considered “healthy.” Now FDA has reversed itself on the matter of Kind bars. And the agency is planning to redefine what it takes for a food product to be called “healthy.”

At best, both “healthy” and “natural,” when applied to a food product, is meaningless puffery. But more often, these claims are just plain deceptive. Maybe it is time for them to go away. We can save all our energy for fighting about GMOs.

Click here to read more from NPR about claims that a food is natural. Click here for more on “healthy” claims.

Unnatural, photograph © Koshy Koshy / flickr

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May 13, 2016