We trust labels because they usually serve us well. Nutrition Facts are useful to find out just what we are eating, how much of it we should have, and what’s in the food we are eating. However, it is the labels on the front of those shiny packages on the shelves that often betray us. One word in particular, “natural”, is especially slippery.
How could that be? Aren’t there rules to make sure the claims on the packaging are accurate? In a couple words: yes and no. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) do have certain regulations on certain words and when and why food manufacturers may use them. These terms are regulated and enforced. Some of them include words like “chocolate” which requires the food in question have both cocoa solids and cocoa butter in certain amounts, otherwise “chocolaty” or other words must be used. Similarly “yogurt” carries certain bacteria and acid regulations, but “frozen yogurt” does not.
What is “Natural” Food?
“Natural” has no such restrictions. To begin with, it is hard to pin down what it even means. All ingredients can, at some point, be traced back to nature. Furthermore, regulatory agencies are often more concerned with purity than other factors. They can ensure something is a particular portion of pure chocolate or yogurt, but “natural” cannot be so easily regulated.
As a result of these lax rules, manufacturers take advantage of the fact that there is no set definition of “natural” and apply it in many cases that often feel counter-intuitive to consumers. Refined sugar could be called “natural” because, after all, it does come from sugar cane or sugar beets.
In the food world, some groups push manufacturers to use “natural” in ways that consumers might consider more logical, but they are not government organizations. That means they often hold little actual power. They can call for boycotts and consumer action, but they are not the FDA nor the USDA.
When it comes to food labels, then, what can you trust? The USDA does regulate the word “organic” and has specific rules on the farming conditions, processing, and handling such foods can have. USDA organic regulations include restricted types of fertilizers used in growing the food or the types of food fed to livestock, and the labels such food is allowed to carry.
So, the next time you’re at the grocery store snooping on labels, be sure to check labels carefully and remember that some terms actually mean something, and some don’t. Moreover, remember the regulations apply only to food; other things that agencies like the FDA and USDA regulate may not fall under such regulations.