The FDA Wants to Tell Us What Words Mean

The FDA is proposing a new regulation to define, and potentially ban, the use of the word “natural” in food packaging. Historically, there has been no official definition of the term, meaning that food companies can include the word on anything they like. It’s a marketing tool, rather than a genuine description of nutritional content.

This may seem problematic to people concerned about what they eat, but the fact is that the word “natural” is inherently vague and ambiguous, making it more well-suited to go alongside other marketing words like “fun” or “tasty” than to attempt to convey specific nutritional information. Regulation of these types of terms falls outside of the purview of the FDA, and should be left for individual companies and consumers to decide.

What does “natural” actually mean? It could be anything. From one point of view, humans are creatures of nature, and therefore anything we make is by extension natural. Just as honey made by bees is natural, preservatives made by humans is too. From the other extreme, you could argue that it’s unnatural to cook food, since that requires human intervention, and this would rule out any cooked products from being labeled as natural. Some may argue that this vagueness illustrates the need for definition, but allowing a centralized authority to make that decision comes with its own set of problems.

Any definition the FDA comes up with will be necessarily arbitrary. Rather than informing consumers, what you will see is a government agency effectively picking winners and losers in the food industry. The FDA knows that consumers respond well to the “natural” label, so it would be giving a de facto sanction to some foods while forbidding others from using effective marketing.

This is especially troubling given that the “naturalness” of foods has very little to do with their actual health benefits. There are plenty of natural things that are harmful to humans, like arsenic or uranium, or to choose a more mundane example, salt and sugar in excess quantities. There are plenty of unnatural things that are perfectly harmless. Allowing some foods to use the label while forbidding others from doing the same gives a false impression of benefits that doesn’t reflect reality.

Like so many regulations, this one is a thinly disguised attempt to hurt producers the government doesn’t like, while rewarding those it does. Veiled in the mantle of consumer protection, such rules actually limit consumer choice and provide a false stamp of legitimacy on things that don’t deserve it. The word “natural” is fundamentally a marketing term, and the FDA has no business regulating its use.