The fight over natural products

NutritionLabel_WomanReading_blogMarketing ploys almost always work for me. Is Disneyland the happiest place on earth? Of course it is. Is Paris, France really the city of love? I fell in love with crème brulee while I was there, so obviously that’s true as well. Is a food with “natural” written on the label really au natural? Absolutely!

That is exactly the word some food critics are debating.

People are attracted to the word “natural” on food labels—and it is easy to understand why. Nature is good, nature is better than man-made or artificial products, at least in theory. Trends of the natural variety are soaring in popularity, like the Paleo diet.

But as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says in a recent article in Fortune, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”

Nielsen reports that the food industry sells approximately $41 billion worth of products that are marketed as “natural.” To the Washington Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman, this is the industry’s “most egregious example” of nonsense labeling, calling the term “utterly meaningless.”

An article on Fortune states that “if ‘natural’ meant anything at all, science would evaluate things based on their ‘naturalness.’ But of course it doesn’t, both because there’s no workable definition for ‘natural,’ and because even if ‘naturalness’ could be measured, it wouldn’t tell us anything meaningful.”

After all, “natural” is a very loose term. The Ebola outbreak ravaging parts of West Africa is a natural virus. Poisons found in plants and animals are natural things. In general, none of these things are considered good for humans or the environment.

Natural and natural products is a very skewed term, meaning mostly what consumers want it to mean at this point, given the lack of definition from the FDA. Because at what point does a natural product become unnatural? Where does the line begin?

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