by Kelsey Blackwell in New Hope 360 Blog

Dec. 5, 2011 1:00pm

The Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter last week to a food processor for misusing the term “natural.” According to my research, it’s not the only company doing so.

One of these foods is not like the other. One of these foods, according to the Food and Drug Administration, should not be using the term “natural.” Can you guess which?

Truvia Natural Sweetener

Sun Chips Jalapeno Jack Flavored Multigrain Snacks




Alexia Foods All Natural Roasted Red Potatoes & Baby Portabella Mushrooms


Hormel 100% Natural Brown Sugar Deli Ham

Breyers Natural Vanilla


And the winner is … Alexia Foods. Last week the FDA issued a warning letter to the food manufacturer for misleading consumers by using the term “All Natural” on its Roasted Red Potatoes & Baby Portabella Mushrooms which contain the synthetic chemical preservative disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate. But if you scanned the above list and thought more than one of these foods sounded suspicious, you’re right on in my eyes.

The FDA’s definition of what can be labeled as “natural” is, shall we say, pretty loose. According to the government agency’s website, “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, [the] 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.”

There’s plenty of incentive for companies to slap on an all natural label. For whatever reason, consumers trust the term.  According to a survey released last year by the Shelton Group, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based advertising agency, 31 percent of consumers chose “100 percent natural,” 25 percent chose “all-natural ingredients” and 7 percent chose “contains natural ingredients.” In contrast, only 14 percent chose “100 percent organic” and about 12 percent chose “certified-organic ingredients.”

A fuzzy FDA defined definition coupled with consumers’ clear affection for the term, has led to a Wild West approach to its use. In less than 10 minutes of Googling, I found plenty of “natural” foods with very unnatural ingredients. Take a look at what’s in the above mentioned products:

  • Truvia Natural Sweetener: This sugar substitute is enhanced with “natural flavors.” As Eric Schlosser points out in his book Fast Food Nation, “The distinction between artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains. A natural flavor is not necessarily healthier or purer than an artificial one.”
  • Sun Chips Jalapeno Jack Flavored Multigrain Snacks: I’d pass on these chips made with genetically modified corn, natural flavors and maltodextrin.
  • Hormel 100% Natural Brown Sugar Deli Ham: What’s a sandwich without added hormones and antibiotics?
  • Breyers Natural Vanilla: I don’t think ice cream made with rBGH milk and cream tastes so sweet.

While I appreciate the FDA’s effort in targeting Alexia Foods, I think it’s time for the government agency to narrow its definition of the term “natural” and go after other companies misleading consumers.