RFI - The Meaning of Natural is Changing
January 18, 2016 Hot Off the Press, News No Comments

We ARE the Natural Product Industry! We are a passionate group of people who love what we do, and it is a very exciting time to be in business. However, the term “natural” is under fire, which means that our $150-billion-per-year industry may soon grapple with an identity crisis.

What we can say about the “naturalness” of our products and processes, no matter how health promoting, is up for debate and definition. The FDA has even asked for public comment on the matter!

According to an article in the NY Times, at least 200 class-action lawsuits have been filed against food manufacturers for misusing the nebulous terms, “natural,” “all-natural,” “100 percent all-natural,” and the likes.

Some of the original cases were brought against companies that included high fructose corn syrup in products and still marketed them as “natural.” While the ingredient is derived from corn, it has been heavily processed and may contain GMOs, which play a lead role in this regulatory drama.

Even Whole Foods Market had their day in court over the matter.

Here is another great article from the Organic Report.


The Current Meaning of Natural

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.

Unfortunately, the lack of a definition, and even the guidelines previously posted, leave tremendous gaps and have created the path for the many lawsuits that are arising.

According to an NPR.org interview with Ivan Wasserman, a trusted expert and legal counsel to the NPI: “If the FDA were to create a more strict, more comprehensive definition, it would give manufacturers a lot more guidance on whether or not they cold use the term ‘natural’ on their food products.”

While we agree, creating a comprehensive definition is easier said than done. The term “natural” means something different to everyone; similar to the original debate over the term “organic,” which some criticized for meaning little more than ”derived from living organisms.”

The sticking point is our agreement over the definition.


Where Do We Go From Here?

We must come up with a standard framework that the entire industry can use to responsibly define “natural,” and then allow adequate time for feedback from various stakeholders.

To define “natural” in both food and supplements, it will be important for both consumers and industry to weigh-in on many topics, including:

  • Processes that alter the “naturalness” of ingredients and products, and what the limits are.
  • Physical vs. chemical means of ingredient manufacturing, even if the molecules are indistinguishable.
  • The use of processing aids and to what extent these might affect the definition.
  • Where we stand on extractions with common, traditional solvents such as ethanol.
  • Which types of sugar are “natural,” which aren’t and why.
  • The use of non-synthetic additives, flavors and colors.
  • GMOs – should a GMO product be allowed to make a natural claim?
  • Should there be a “natural” definition different from “naturally derived”, and what should that distinction be?


In addition, it is imperative that we clearly distinguish the terms “organic,” “non-GMO” and “natural” from each other.

When GMOs became a buzzword within the industry and among consumers, the organic industry was unable to educate consumers on “organic” and make the consumer understand that “organic” also meant “non-GMO.” We may now be required to answer the questions:

  • How are the terms “organic” and “natural” different from each other?
  • And, how do we protect the value of “organic” in this discussion?


Without passionate consumer and industry input, we may be destined to repeat the same mistake twice. 

Consumers must be given a voice in creating these new guidelines. If left up to industry alone, the agri-giants such as Monsanto will get their say and no one else. We just can’t let that happen.


The FDA’s Time Frame for Public Comment has Been Extended!

Consumers now have until May 10th, 2016 to comment on using the term “natural” in the labeling of food. Using this link, anyone can submit comments and suggestions to the FDA for consideration.

At the time of writing this blog, approximately 3,265 comments have been submitted to the site. Let’s see if we can lift that number to 10,000 comments (or more!) by sending out a call to action to your stakeholders.

Please share this link [http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FDA-2014-N-1207-1827] with your communities and on social media!


In Good Health,

Paul Altaffer

Chief Innovation Officer, RFI Ingredients

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