What’s the Difference Between Natural and Processed?
Under Prop 37, the California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, words like “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown” and “all natural” would be prohibited from use on the labels of foods that have been genetically engineered (GE) as well as of products made with GE ingredients. It’s an appropriate rule, as it would be hard to argue that genetically engineered foods are natural in any sense of the word. But there is another category of food that may also fail to qualify as “natural” under Prop 37.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, “given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.”
Processed food, as defined in Prop 37, “includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling.” By that definition, applesauce, peanut butter, raisins, whole wheat flour and frozen blueberries would be considered processed and therefore not natural.
The Natural Products Association (NPA), among others, have come out against Prop 37 on this issue. Last week the NPA declared that it supports consumers’ right to know what’s in their food but opposes the GMO labeling initiative, in part because of the way it defines natural foods: “We are concerned the restrictions on natural foods in the proposition language could create a difficult business environment in California and further hinder the ability of our members to sell natural products.” Far fewer products would be allowed to be advertised, labeled and sold as “natural,” a term that holds considerable sway for many consumers, despite the fact that it has no formal or legal definition and its use on labels is unregulated.
Efforts to Define “Natural”
Later this year the NPA is expected to publish new standards as well as a certification scheme for natural foods. NPA vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs Cara Welch told FoodNavigator-USA that natural foods would have to be “sourced from nature and processed naturally.” Ingredients that would likely not qualify as natural include those extracted with organic solvents, as well as modified starch, high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
On genetically engineered foods and ingredients, Welch said that “the group looking at this wants them to be prohibited [from any definition of natural] but it’s a tricky one — it can be very hard to find GM-free soy anything in the U.S.” In other words, the NPA is balancing the interests of its members — many of whom apparently have a stake in soy-based products – with what’s right. For by what definition of natural could any genetically engineered food qualify?
To be sure, natural is a very subjective term, with consumers and producers alike unable to agree on a definition. The FDA has so far avoided defining the term and says only that it will not object to its use “if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” It’s a non-definition, as Marion Nestle calls it, which the FDA explains by noting how “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.”
But that brings us back to the essence of Prop 37′s definition of natural. A food that has not undergone any processing, one that is sold exactly as it is found in nature, is natural, and no one can argue with that. What critics object to is the fact that, under Prop 37, those may be the only foods that qualify as natural. Yet this very exacting definition may be the only truly right one. Once you get beyond nature, everyone has his or her own idea of what natural is. Case in point: while the Natural Products Association does not consider high fructose corn syrup natural, the FDA does. And your idea of natural, too, likely varies from that of some of your neighbors, friends and family members.
What’s your definition of a natural food? Do you agree with Prop 37′s definition?