The late comedian George Carlin once elucidated the word “natural”. He said: “Everything is natural. Everything in the universe is part of nature. Polyester, pesticides, oil slicks, and whoopee cushions. Nature is not just trees and flowers. It’s everything. Human beings are part of nature. And if a human being invents something, that’s part of nature, too.”
But despite Carlin’s observation of this inherent truth, “natural” is a contentious claim, especially if it happens to be made by a major food manufacturer using controversial ingredients, such as genetically modified foods, as a recent Wall Street Journal article explored.
At the heart of the “natural” controversy is the absence of any government agency’s clear definition for the term. Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA and requires third party certification, random audits and costly paperwork for any farmer or manufacturer making organic product claims, “natural” is not bound to any real regulation. And, with a growing concern over food safety and quality, many Americans see the word natural as interchangeable with organic, despite significant differences.
The FDA does have an “informal policy” on the word “natural,” which claims that nothing using that term can be made with anything artificial or synthetic. This loose definition landed ConAgra’s Wesson Oil in court for their “100 % Natural” canola oil, made from genetically modified canola. The USDA defines “genetically modified” as any organism that undergoes a technique that alters or moves genetic material of living cells from their natural state, which would thereby make GMO seeds such as Monsanto corn, soy and canola no longer “natural.” According to the California Department of Food, more than 70 percent of all processed food currently sold in the U.S. contains some sort of genetically modified ingredients.
Other “natural” violators include Kashi—the well known wholesome-positioned brand of breakfast cereals and snack bars—and Arizona Iced Tea’s “100 %” Natural” Green Tea, which contains high fructose corn syrup made from GMO corn. Their misleading “natural” claims have also led to lawsuit settlements estimated in the millions, while the manufacturers lay the blame on the FDA—citing their lack of a clear definition on the term “natural” to include the ingredients in question.
But regulating the word natural is still a long way off–if ever. What might be more likely–and seems to be gaining more support–is clear labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients. California voters are hoping to see the GMO issue on 2012 ballots and organizations like the Right2KnowMarch are working to raise consumer awareness with their 313-mile walk from New York City to Washington D.C. next month.
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