Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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‘Natural’ On Food Labels Has To Go

The following thoughts are 100 percent fat-free, sodium-free, gluten-free, carb-free, calorie-free, GMO-free and allergen-free. They may or not be 100 percent natural, depending on how you define the term “natural.”

And therein lies a huge problem for the food industry. Actually, it’s not just a huge problem, it’s an insurmountable problem.

So we agree with Consumer Reports in calling for a ban on the “natural” label on food. As we reported two weeks ago (please see “Consumer Reports Wants To Ban Use Of Term ‘Natural’ On Food Product Labels,” on page 6 of our June 20th issue), the petition drive to ban the “natural” label is aimed at pressuring the federal government to stop giving industry permission to label products as “natural.”

There are at least a couple of problems with the term “natural.” First, a national survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 59 percent of consumers check to see if the products they are buying are “natural.” And while a majority of people think that the “natural” label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.

The problem there is, the “natural” label doesn’t actually carry specific benefits.

That’s due to the second problem with the term “natural”: nobody knows exactly how to define it. “Nobody,” in this case, includes the US Food and Drug Administration.

Here’s what FDA has to say in response to the question, “What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?”

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. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The US Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, requires that meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products.

So just within the federal government, the two agencies that specifically regulate food products don’t even agree on how to define “natural.” FDA’s position is so broad that products that few consumers would actually deem to be “natural” could qualify to use the term.

And USDA’s definition, well, it sort of requires further definition. Specifically, what exactly is “minimally processed,” anyway?

There are some folks who consider any dairy product that is made from pasteurized milk to be more than just “minimally processed.” Thus, depending on how you define “minimally processed,” only raw milk and raw milk products could be considered “natural.”

And what about products such as cheese and yogurt? They have certainly been “processed” beyond what the milk was when it came out of the cow. The same applies to butter.

So from this perspective, “minimally processed” would almost have to be limited to milk you got directly from the cow (or goat, or sheep) and that never left the farm.

There’s yet another problem with using the term “natural” on food labels: it seems to attract lawsuits.
Last year, the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the US Chamber of Commerce, reported that courts are seeing an “unprecedented surge” in consumer class action lawsuits against food manufacturers.

These food-related actions, the Institute reported, generally allege that, among other things, a product was advertised as “all natural” when it contained synthetic or artificial ingredients, such as preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup; and a product was advertised as “all natural” when it contained genetically modified ingredients, such as corn or soy.

All of this leads us to conclude that the term “natural” should be banned from food labels. It’s misunderstood by consumers, not defined (and is probably undefinable) by the federal agency that regulates dairy products (FDA) and seems prone to attracting lawsuits and the bad publicity that follows.

So what can the dairy industry do to call attention to the “naturalness” of its products, without actually using the term “natural,” or some derivative, such as “all natural” or “naturally sourced?”

Maybe the solution here is just to call attention to the number of ingredients in various “minimally processed” dairy products (keeping in mind that “minimally processed” also might be undefinable).

For example, it’s been well-documented (including in this publication) that butter has made a remarkable comeback in recent years, with production in 2013 reaching its second-highest level ever, trailing only 1941.
Many attribute butter’s comeback in part to its short ingredient list: cream and salt. Most cheese products also have a simple list of ingredients: pasteurized (or raw) milk, cultures and enzymes, and salt.

So there are some terms other than “natural” that could be applied to many dairy products, terms like “simple” or “basic.” But our guess is that these terms would end up attracting negative attention, such as lawsuits, just like the term “natural” has.

Maybe dairy product marketers should just put something on the principal display panel of their products calling attention to the ingredient list. And then consumers can decide for themselves if the products are “natural.” DG

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