The Unnatural Death of 'Natural'

Nutrition information on packaged food. Q7/Alamy

Unlikely as it may seem, there's hope for the word natural. In recent years, marketers who create copy for grocery-aisle packaging have turned the once respectable adjective into a term as meaningless as low-fat or new - a sneaky label for processed foods with ingredients that often sound like something out of bad science fiction.

But don't despair. Consumer advocates are fighting to reclaim the word, using not only civil action but also a newly introduced bill in Congress that for the first time would legally define natural. Already some of the biggest names in food and beverage manufacturing are tiptoeing away. PepsiCo Inc. and Campbell Soup Co., among others, have quietly deleted the natural label from products like Naked Juice and Goldfish - the snack cracker brought to you by those ostensible tillers of the soil at Pepperidge "Farms."

In the absence of rigorous oversight, the makers of purportedly natural products have multiplied into an industry worth more than $40 billion annually. Compare that with the relatively modest $32 million a year U.S. market value for certified organic products. As far as that goes, the term organic itself was similarly up for grabs in the much of the United States until 1990, when Congress finally authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to set some standards.

Agricultural purists spent decades railing against the use of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. By the time Congress took action, the nationwide market for organic products had already grown to $1 billion a year. And although California created its own certification program in the 1970s, the term organic could still mean pretty much anything you chose in most other parts of the country.

Even now, with a market grown to many times that size, use of the natural label remains wide open. The word still has no legally binding definition for federal regulators or for jurists weighing claims of false advertising. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers only vague guidelines on the question, apologizing that "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."

Despite the lack of a clear definition, however, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed in recent years against companies for allegedly misrepresenting their products as natural. Although some of those lawsuits have been quashed, others have led to multimillion-dollar settlements. Payouts on that scale are a sign that the word must mean something.

But what? Not even staunch proponents of natural living seem quite sure. Just ask Donald Vincent, 38, an organic hobbyist and self-described "green-neck" in the western Colorado town of Montrose. Natural is one of those words whose definition seems so obvious that most people never think about it, and Vincent starts to say it's anything untouched by the human hand - and quickly stops. If you find an acorn and plant it in the ground, have you made it unnatural?

He tries again. If it contains no synthetic ingredients and can be digested completely by the compost heap out back, it's natural, he says - and that goes for genetically modified organisms, too. Many natural-food enthusiasts would dispute that last part. They passionately distrust GMOs, which tend to be manufactured by corporate giants like Monsanto and now pervade the U.S. food supply. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 95 percent of all sugar beets - one fifth of the country's total sugar supply right there - comes from altered seed - as do much of the corn, soybeans, and other produce sold in big natural-food stores like Whole Foods.

Vincent says he has no problem with that. "We cannot differentiate between farmers grafting an apple tree to a different root to make it a healthier tree and scientists changing the DNA of a seed to make it more disease-resistant," Vincent says. "Both plants will produce food that will presumably taste good and give us the nutrients we all need. It is either all natural, or it is all unnatural."

Others say the whole industry is effectively a lost cause. "I threw the word natural out the window a few years ago," says Dana Price, 38, currently an inventory manager at Oregon Growers, a supplier of jams, fruit butters, honeys, and other niche products. After a decade working with companies like Trader Joe's and Wild Oats, he says he's disgusted. He blames the profit motive. "So many of the trusted names in organic have been bought out by bigger nonorganic conglomerates," he says. "The whole-food industry is a serious mess, and the only thing I really trust is the farmer's market. I don't even care if what they sell is organic."

Whatever Price may say, he hasn't entirely given up on the idea. He agrees with Vincent that if the label says "natural," consumers should be able to pronounce all the listed ingredients. And both men are convinced that "partially hydrogenated" has the ring of something that should be banned under the Geneva Conventions. (For what it's worth, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this month that it's taking steps toward eliminating "partially hydrogenated oils," a.k.a. trans fats, from the country's food supplies.) And despite any minor disagreements the two may have over questions of diet, they share an even more important conviction: Words should do more than just sound nice.