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We finally get our say on what ‘natural’ should mean on food labels

Ask anyone what “natural” means on a food label, and you’re likely to get a vague answer.

It’s become a popular buzzword to throw on food packages, something that makes us feel better about the choices we make. But there’s no clear, legal definition for it. So the FDA is asking us, the public, to tell them what we think “natural” food should mean.

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This is the result of three online petitions and some consumer lawsuits between private parties. The FDA doesn’t have a formal rule about labeling something “natural,” but its policy has long been that it should mean the food’s ingredients include nothing “synthetic or artificial.” It’s more of a guideline, as the pirates say, than anything with actual teeth.

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Compare this with the word “organic,” which has clear rules with legal implications. If you’re treating your watermelon plants with certain pesticides and then you slap an “organic” label on the melons, you could be sued. Not so with the label “natural.”

I think a lot of us have gotten used to the way food producers fling that word around to lure us into buying their products. We know it could mean just about anything and that in some cases it’s nothing but a collection of letters on a package. Oh, the eye rolling I’ve done in the grocery store over what marketers try to pass off as natural! So it has almost become meaningless.

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But here’s an opportunity to attach some meaning back to the word — if we want to go there. Personally I think it’s always great to have more information. Yes, I can look at the ingredients list and come to my own conclusions. For that matter, I can skip the middle aisles altogether and keep to the perimeter, where the produce, meat and dairy are. Less ambiguity that way. But I still think words should mean something. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer.

Anyway, here’s what to do if you have a strong opinion on this: Go to the FDA’s Use of the Term “Natural” in the Labeling of Human Food Products Request for Information and Comments. Click on the blue “comment now” box, and write away. Think about whether the word should address use of pesticides, preservatives and other synthetic ingredients, how the food is grown, the nutritional quality and GMOs. Should something with high fructose corn syrup be called “natural”? For that matter, do you think it’s appropriate for the FDA to define the word at all?

(If that link doesn’t work, go to the FDA’s regulations search: and type “FDA-2014-N-1207” in the search box. It will take a while for search results to load.)

What will the FDA do with these comments? It is required to read them all and then decide how to act on those comments. It may decide it doesn’t have the resources or budget to address this question, or it may realize that consumer demand is so high it has to do something. At any rate, this is a rare chance to have your say about how one of our agencies does its job.

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