The Emptiness of “100% Natural”

Parke, over at US Food Policy, reminds us once again that the word “Natural” should be regarded with great skepticism when found on food labels.

Part of my real-world job involves parsing words and phrases, interpreting meaning in poorly worded passages, and generally understanding government regulations. So when I read the USDA’s definition of natural for meat and poultry…

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)

Writing regulations and requirements is not like the writing you and I do in everyday life. Everything must be unambiguous, consistent, and verifiable. In parsing the above, I find (and others have found) several flaws with the above, specifically in the area of ambiguity and verifiability. For example:

  • No artificial ingredient – How is “artificial” defined?
  • Minimally processed – What defines “Minimally”?
  • Does not fundamentally alter the raw product – What is the criteria for any product to not be “fundamentally altered”?

The answer to the first issue is likely found in a different set of regulations, where each ingredient is identified as artificial or not. The other two issues are more severe. For only being one sentence, having three issues shows poor oversight by the USDA. Adverbs and adjectives are often indications of poor regulations, unless they are defined as well. Without clarification of these terms, it leaves the regulation open for interpretation and abuse – which is precisely what has happened.

The simple answer is to look upon the phrase “natural” with great suspicion, unless a company puts some effort in communicating answers to the three issues listed above. The problem with this is that it is counter-intuitive for the purpose of the “natural” label.