What’s the deal with “Natural” Foods?

Food and Drug Administration FDA regulation

Alright here’s where I get political: The FDA is a hack organization that barely does anything to protect our health and wellness.

I do not trust the government to protect our health. Regulatory agencies such as the FDA are subject to immense lobbying from giant corporations such as Coca-Cola. This overly cozy relationship with corporate finance makes it impossible for regulators to achieve optimal public health outcomes.

Also, as I’ve learned while starting a food business, they don’t actually verify what people are putting in food. I could literally put dirt in Dirtballs and the FDA wouldn’t do a damn thing until a lot of people filed complaints.

What does the FDA even do?

For the most part, the FDA seems to keep people from selling us literal poison. And that’s about as far as they go. That’s only in

It turns out, according to FDA.gov, that this agency oversees a wide range of industries from tobacco to medicine to food to… irradiation products???  A lot of these regulatory agencies don’t really make sense.

Why are food and drugs under the same umbrella organization? This is only slightly more logical than lumping alcohol, tobacco, and firearms together. At least both food and drugs are substances people ingest.

But they obviously don’t have the desire to prevent people from selling unhealthy substances. The FDA allows both mass produced sugary processed foods and harmful addictive drugs like fentanyl to be sold. Their primary interest is clearly not our wellbeing but corporate profits.

At least these regulators have considered the use of “Natural” on food labels. Even though it’s a pretty weak statement that still allows people to abuse the term, at least they have something:

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 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.  However, 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.

My main disagreement is that the FDA’s bar for what is synthetic vs. natural is far too low. There are some ingredients that require complex industrial processes or fancy enzymes to produce that the FDA still classifies as natural.

I would raise the bar so anything that’s not maybe 2 steps away from a simple whole food ingredient to be labeled as unnatural. You’d think natural just means pre-industrial. We did not evolve to digest industrially refined ingredients. It makes more sense to consider anything made in a factory unnatural.

Brown rice syrup, for example, is a sweetener refined from brown rice. It’s popular with a lot of fake healthy companies. It “is derived by steeping cooked rice starch with saccharifying enzymes to break down the starches, followed by straining off the liquid and reducing it by evaporative heating until the desired consistency is reached,” according to the wikipedia entry.

I do not consider brown rice syrup to be natural even though it is derived from a naturally occurring food. We ought to regulate our food with the same mindset.

Here’s actually the most insidious aspect of this: everyone associates the word “natural” with health. Food marketers kjnow this (trust me, I am one) and use that word on packaging specifically to communicate healthfulness to consumers.

It’s a dastardly headfake that takes advantage of people’s desire for wellness. Companies that abuse words like natural to sneak candy into our diets should be charged with culinary assault.

What do the people think?

A few years ago, the FDA opened up public comment regarding the use of “Natural” on food labels. Here are some highlights from the general public:

The term NATURAL should be used only in relationship to products that have NOT been genetically modified, genetically engineered, altered as or into hybrid, cloned or spliced. The term NATURAL should also indicate that it is not exposed, injected or combined with any viruses, bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, fetal tissue (dead or alive), human tissue, metals, minerals having negative side effects nor other current or future tested or untested pharmaceuticals. It should NOT be applied to anything having GMOs or ingredients as chemicals that were not derived from other certified organic sources.

-Miracle-Dawn Alston

Makes sense. You’d think this was already the rule about natural labeling.

Stop lying to your people. Fuck u guys. Fuck u. Remove the term natural from food that is NOT natural.

-Liam King

Ooooh I love the passion, Liam. This is the problem with language, though. The same collection of sounds and symbols often means entirely different things to different people.

This is an excerpt from a form letter that appeared in many of the comments:

The best way to minimize consumer confusion is to not allow the claim “natural” on food products from animals. Instead, the FDA should allow producers to state that their products are minimally processed and/or contain no artificial ingredients. Alternatively, if the “natural” claim is to be retained, its use should be limited to meat, poultry, dairy, and egg products certified by USDA Organic or an equivalent certification program that requires, among other things, that animals have access to the outdoors and enrichments, and are spared from physical alterations such as debeaking and tail docking, and are not given routine antibiotics or growth promoting hormones.

The misuse of “natural” on meat is especially distressing. Quality meat can be part of a healthy diet for most people. The antibiotic laden mass produced meat from genetically modified pseudo-animals, however, is not safe for human consumption.

We should make farms like Polyface the standard for meat labeled as “natural.” These farms allow their animals to roam and graze in the sun. The meat they produce is higher quality and they often have a negative carbon footprint because of the natural husbandry practices.

The FDA either needs to step its game up or dissolve itself entirely.

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