“The term is becoming a bit damaged, if you will, by the perception that there is no regulatory definition," Dr. Adams Hutt told FoodNavigator-USA. “So therefore it’s being used in many ways that frankly, I think have been attempts to invoke minimally processed status on something which is not so minimally processed. That’s where we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble and the luster on the natural claim has been tarnished.”
The lack of regulatory definition by the FDA or the USDA has admittedly given manufacturers a longer leash in terms of how they qualify it, but Dr. Adams Hutt maintains that there are certainly clear guidelines on what the agencies deem natural and not so natural.
The FDA does not object to use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. The USDA’s label approval program similarly says that any label on meat, poultry and egg products bearing a “natural” claim must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. “And they grant or don’t grant approval on ingredients claimed as natural on daily basis,” she noted.
The fuzziness surrounding the natural definition could be partially responsible for growing interest in organic, whose standards are very clearly defined by the National Organic Program.
“It’s not just about standard on food product, it’s about the method of manufacture—it’s quite comprehensive, rigorous and robust. It links to sustainability in a certain sense, to being mindful of resources to create that food item,” she said. But organic is much more amenable to minor use (specialty) crops such as kale and spinach as opposed to commodity ingredients, and appears to resonate best among health-conscious populations who are willing to pay a premium for the organic seal.
Still, there’s a shift happening among the majority of consumers, Dr. Adams Hutt says, toward asking for the food industry to provide cleaner label, minimally processed foods—not only for their perceived healthfulness, but because they carry related connotations that are increasingly important secondary and tertiary attributes, such as ethical production practices.