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What Does The Word “Natural” Mean, Anyway?

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you need a snack – maybe a granola bar, but which one? Does the package that boasts it is “100% Natural” win out over the one that is only “All Natural”?  Would you even consider one that is merely “Natural”? Well, don’t expect the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help you decide anytime soon – they have left it up to the courts to grapple with.

Lawsuits against food companies alleging consumer fraud based on deceptive labeling have increased in the last few years.  Many of these lawsuits have been brought in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, causing that court to be known as the “Food Court” (no, not the one at the mall).  One common bone of contention is the use of the word “natural” in food labeling.  “Natural” remains undefined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after a failed attempt to do so in 1991.  It reaffirmed its informal policy for use of the word “natural” on food labeling claims:

The agency will maintain its current policy . . . not to restrict the use of the term “natural” except for added color, synthetic substances, and flavors as provided in [21 CFR] §101.22.  Additionally, the agency will maintain its policy . . . regarding the use of “natural,” as meaning that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.  Further, at this time the agency will continue to distinguish between natural and artificial flavors as outlined in §101.22. See more here.

A typical claim in a lawsuit will contend that the use of the word “natural,” whether as “100% Natural,” “All Natural,” or something similar, is misleading if the product contains or was processed with a compound perceived by plaintiffs to be artificial or synthetic.  The problem in these lawsuits is that the term is undefined, and even FDA says that it is difficult to define a food product that is natural because it has likely been processed and is no longer a “product of the earth.”  This leaves fertile ground for plaintiff’s class action attorneys to bring claims against food companies for any use of the word.

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Michelle Gillette