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Ask Tufts Experts July 2011 Issue

Q: There are many food products using the term “natural.” What does that really mean? Can foods with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients still be labeled “natural”?

Answer :  “The term ‘natural’ is being used a great deal—it’s a very popular trend in labeling— but it means absolutely nothing,” says James E. Tillotson, PhD, MBA, professor of food policy and international business at Tufts’ Friedman School. Unlike “organic” products, which must adhere to a strict set of rules, there is no standard definition for “natural” except for meat and poultry products, and no organization independently certifies this claim. The FDA does have a longstanding policy regarding the term: “Natural” means only that the product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients that would not normally be expected to be in the food—including artificial flavors or color additives, regardless of source. Use of “natural” is not permitted in the ingredient list, except in the phrase “natural flavorings.”

According to the USDA, fresh meat or poultry labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavoring, color ingredients, chemical preservatives, or artificial or synthetic ingredients. It must be only “minimally processed,” defined as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product, although flavor injections are allowed.

Tillotson says that challenges to the use of “natural” have come more often in the courts than from regulators. Competitors and consumer groups have sued over “natural” labeling of products sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), for example. (For more on “natural” claims, see our August 2008 Special Report.)

Products containing GMO ingredients may nonetheless be labeled as “natural.” A recent survey by The Organic & Non-GMO Report found that many “natural” breakfast cereals contain GMO corn, soy, canola or sugar beets. And a three-year survey by a New York City food co-op identified more than 400 of its 8,000 products as possibly containing GMOs. Whether GMOs actually pose any health risk remains controversial.

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