Food and Drug Administration: Should ‘Natural’ Include GMO?

The Food and Drug Administration today opened this page to allow comments on a proposed regulation change involving the word “natural” on food packages. The issue boils down to this: four different petitions cropped up around the same time requesting contradictory changes to the FDA’s definition of “natural.” Currently, the word is only used to mean “no added color, synthetic substances, or flavors.” Because of the word “added” in that definition, anything that is in the food itself (pre-additions) is considered fair to brand “natural.” These petitions request significant changes:

  1. The FDA received a petition from the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association requesting that they alter regulations so that the words “natural,” “all natural,” “100% natural,” “from nature,” “naturally grown,” or “naturally sourced” can appear on the packages of foods containing bioengineered or biotechnological ingredients or additives.
  2. They also received a petition from the Consumer’s Union requesting that the word “natural” and it’s derivations and related terms are so vague and misleading that they should simply never be used on food packaging, given that the USDA Organic label effectively means everything a reasonable consumer would expect the word “Natural” in its dictionary definition to mean.
  3. Sara Lee Corp. (a division of Tyson foods) sent in a petition essentially asking the FDA to keep their current definition of the word “natural,” but also taking into account the degree of processing necessary to create an ingredient.
  4. The Sugar Association sent in a petition asking for consistency across governmental organizations, specifically asking the FDA to adopt the same definition of “natural” that is used by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). This definition actually perfectly fits the Sara Lee Corp. as well, because the FSIS rule is “no added color, flavor, or synthetic substance and no ingredient may be more than minimally processed,” with fairly commonsense rules about what constitutes “minimal” processing.

What Does “Natural” Mean?
According to the dictionary, this question couldn’t be more simple: “natural” means “existing in our caused by nature; the opposite of synthetic.” But that definition doesn’t suffice in the legalistic context of American law. After all, cooked pork doesn’t exist in nature except in the rarest of circumstances, but we wouldn’t hesitate to call a precooked sausage “natural.”

But where, then, do we draw the line? Is it “natural” to create a food that involves taking a (presumably natural) seed, and…

  • Crushing it into an ultrafine powder,
  • Mixing it with a nonreactive biatomic solvent,
  • Sculpting the resultant paste into arbitrary and esoteric shapes,
  • Drying it until it becomes rigid and inedible,
  • Holding it in storage for a period of weeks to years,
  • And finally, rehydrating it to edibility in a container of that same solvent — but at a heat wherein the vapor pressure of the solvent is equal to the pressure of the surrounding environment, such that the solvent’s molecules are in the continuous process of ripping their own hydrogen bonds apart and flinging themselves, in gaseous form, into the surrounding air.

Sounds wicked, doesn’t it? We call that making pasta. Don’t even ask about the chemical complexity that is making caramel.

If you think you have a solid grip on what “natural” is — or at least, what we should allow companies to mean when they use the term on packaging — head over to this page and submit a comment. The last time the Food and Drug Administration did this, they declined to make a rule based on the fact that they received no comments that provided sufficient guidance as to why a specific rule would make sense — so if you don’t want that to happen again, give them your guidance!

(Featured image courtesy of Sum Of Us via Flickr, shared via a Creative Commons license.)