Walk down the aisle of a grocery store and you’re bound to see all sorts of bizarre foods labeled as “natural” or “all-natural.” There are “natural” Cheetos and “natural” cookies. There are “all-natural” fruit drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
The ‘natural’ label is meaningless — but many shoppers take it seriously
The “natural” label is basically meaningless — there are very few rules for how it’s used and companies will slap it on all sorts of things.
And yet a lot of shoppers seem to take the label seriously, assuming it means the food is somehow better for you or healthier. Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson points to a new Consumer Reports survey finding that 59 percent of those polled check for a “natural” label when shopping for food. As he laments, “When will the vague ‘natural’ food label die?”
It’s worth expanding on Johnson’s point. There aren’t really any clear definitions for what counts as “natural” food, which is one reason why you see it pop up in so many odd places. But that’s partly because the word itself is inapt — very little about modern agriculture is “natural,” and it’s just not a good way of assessing the health or sustainability of our food system.
There’s no clear definition for “natural” food
But is it natural? BSIP/UIG/Getty Images
The Food and Drug Administration has no official definition of “natural food” — in part, they say, because a great many foods in the grocery store have usually been processed or altered in some way and so it’s difficult to draw a clear line.
The FDA tried to find a precise definition of ‘natural’ in the early 1990s and gave up
Back in 1991, the FDA actually tried to come up with a more precise standard. But after two years of trying, the agency gave up. “It’s too complex,” one FDA official lamented in 2008.
(By the way, this is in contrast to the term “organic,” a term that is more precisely defined and regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.)
By and large, the FDA doesn’t regulate most uses of “natural” labels, though it will occasionally send warning letters — if, say, a product is labeled “all-natural” but contains citric acid or calcium chloride or potassium sorbate. (Though, as one investigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found, those warning letters often go ignored.)
Things are a little different with fresh meat, which is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. There, “natural” is defined as meaning the meat contains no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. But even here, some artificial additives are allowed (such as chicken flavored with a salt broth). And meat from animals raised on antibiotics or hormones can still be called “natural.”
Consumer groups have often complained that the lack of a clear definition means that lots of odd things get misleadingly labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural” even when they include chemical ingredients. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a long list of oddities over the years, including a Hunt’s “100% Natural” tomato sauce that contained citric acid or a Minute Maid “All-Natural” cranberry cocktail that contained high-fructose corn syrup.
That group called for stricter definitions and regulations on the practice, arguing that the label misleads consumers. But even that’s not as easy as it sounds. A more precise definition would still be fairly misleading — in part because the word “natural” isn’t a very helpful way to think about food.
Our food system isn’t “natural” to begin with
Underlying this broader issue is the widespread belief that “anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad,” as Cambridge geneticist Ottoline Leyser put it.
‘The cereal crops we eat bear little resemblance to their naturally selected ancestors’
In a recent essay in PLOS Biology, Leyser argues that it’s time to kill this mistaken idea once and for all. Basically everything in modern agriculture is unnatural. “The cereal crops we eat bear little resemblance to their naturally selected ancestors, and the environments in which we grow them are equally highly manipulated and engineered by us,” she writes. “We have, over the last 10,000 years, bred out of our main food plants all kinds of survival strategies that natural selection put in. ”
It might help to distinguish genetic engineering from traditional techniques for producing food.
Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for tens of thousands of years to get certain desired traits. Over time, for example, farmers (and scientists) have bred corn to become larger, to hold more kernels on an ear, and to flourish in different climates. That process has certainly altered corn’s genes. But it’s not usually considered “genetic engineering.”
Genetic engineering, by contrast, involves the direct manipulation of DNA, and only really became possible in the 1970s. It often takes two different forms: There’s “cisgenesis,” which involves directly swapping genes between two organisms that could otherwise breed — say, from wheat to wheat. Or there’s “transgenesis,” which involves taking well-characterized genes from a different species (say, bacteria) and transplanting them into a crop (say, corn) to produce certain desired traits.
Ultimately, genetic engineering tries to accomplish the same goals as traditional breeding — create plants and animals with desired characteristics. But genetic engineering allows even more fine-tuning. It can be faster than traditional breeding and it allows engineers to transfer specific genes from one species to another. In theory, that allows for a much greater array of traits.
Here’s a diagram from the Food and Drug Administration: