The question of if and when FDA creates a workable definition for the term natural has been with the food industry since before the debate about GMOs. While it is still difficult to say whether the agency will ever clear the fog as to what constitutes natural, there are historical (as well as some recent) indications that various actors in the food industry already have determined what is natural.
Among these are organic certification, the curating practices of Whole Foods Markets, the opinions of Wall Street Journal authors and the decisions by some food processors and retailers to adopt clean label formulation and avoid genetically modified ingredients.
So, what allows a food to be called natural?
Currently FDA reluctantly concedes that foods being called natural should not contain “added color, artificial flavors.” Similarly, Whole Foods Markets has said that foods it will sell must be “free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats.”
A few years ago, food author Michael Pollen suggested that the best foods have an ingredient list with five items or less, and that none of those would be unrecognizable to your grandmother.
Most recently, two top cereal makers introduced new versions of iconic brands that were reformulated to make a non-GMO claim. In early January boxes of Cheerios arrived on store shelves with a non- GMO claim. Shortly thereafter, Post Grape Nuts followed suit.
"We did it because we think consumers will embrace it," Tom Forsythe, vice president of global communications for General Mills, wrote on the company blog (see Cheerios now GMO Free). But just last month, General Mills CEO Kenneth Powell told the Associated Press the company was "not really seeing anything there that we can detect" in terms of increased sales.
"It's what I expected," Powell said. According to the AP, he added that genetically modified organisms “aren't really a concern for most customers.”
Meanwhile with the word natural arousing complaints and consumer shrugs, a replacement has emerged. The word simple is showing up, particularly in products that sport a short ingredient deck like the Haagen-Dazs Five line and Keebler's Simply Made Cookies.
Whether it's a natural claim, or a simple ingredient list they hang it on, food and beverage manufacturers making everything from soup to breaded chicken pieces are looking for ways to appeal to growing ranks of label-readers. This requires special attention from the R&D team when it comes to reformulation.
With the broader availability of natural colors, natural sweeteners and organic and multifunctional ingredients, making more natural foods has become more … well … simple.
GMOs, in or out?
Just last month, under pressure from consumer groups, Kroger and Safeway decided they would not carry genetically modified salmon. In a statement, Kroger confirmed the news that had been released by a consumer advocacy group.
“To date, the FDA has not approved any GE [genetically engineered] salmon for human consumption. Should GE salmon come to market, we are not considering nor do we have any plans to carry GE salmon,” the statement read. “The seafood products we offer will continue to be selected consistent with our Responsible Seafood Purchasing Policy, Responsible Sourcing Commitment and our partnership with FishWise.”
Kroger apparently was referring to the Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. With genes from a faster-growing Pacific chinook salmon and some from an eel, it grows to market size in 16-18 months rather than three years. It has not yet been approved for human consumption by the FDA.
Several other retailers including Whole Foods Markets also are rejecting genetically modified salmon, if only over concerns that the fish could escape from fish farms and compete or breed with non-modified fish.
Last summer a California-based federal judge refused to rule on a question about natural claims for GMOs. Is it lawful to label foods "natural" when they contain ingredients whose genes have been modified?
In a proposed class action lawsuit filed against the tortilla giant Gruma Corp., U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers referred to FDA "the question of whether and under what circumstances food products containing ingredients produced using bioengineered seed may or may not be labeled 'Natural' or 'All Natural' or '100 percent Natural.' " She also put a stay on the case for six months. A few years earlier, another court considering a similar question deferred to FDA, but the agency did not move to define natural then.
There is little or no scientific evidence that GMOs make food any less safe or nutritious, but they are vehemently opposed by many natural food advocates. And GMOs have been clearly written out of organic definitions. FDA has shown inclinations to allow GMOs in the general food supply, but whether or not to allow them in natural foods has muddied the discussion on defining natural and may keep such a definition at bay for some time.
Sweeteners and colors
Avoiding artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners currently puts a food product on the path toward acceptance as natural. And in recently years it has become much easier to source ingredients that are not considered artificial.