As many of you know, the use of the word “natural” in connection with consumer products has largely defied general regulation.  the term ”natural” is not governed by a comprehensive set of requirements. The FTC started and stopped an attempt to define “natural” in the 1980s. The FDA asks: “What is the difference between natural and artificial ingredients? Is a naturally produced ingredient safer than an artificially manufactured ingredient? It then responds: “[n]atural ingredients are derived from natural sources (e.g., soybeans and corn provide lecithin to maintain product consistency; beets provide beet powder used as food coloring). Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients. Also, some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts.”  Although FDA has declined to systematically regulate the term, it did recently issue a warning letter to a ConAgra brand that is the subject of the class action discussed below.

The USDA’s website states that Natural, as applied to meat and poultry, is “[a] product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).” Connecticut and some retail chains have similar policies relating to the presence of natural ingredients and minimal processing.

In the absence of federal regulatory requirements it seems that the issue may be resolved by the courts.  Cases have been filed challenging claims of natural where foods contained ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate and oil from genetically modified plants.  And the list continues.  In the most recent action, filed on “Leap Day,” an unhappy consumer filed a putative class action against ConAgra which markets the Alexia brand, described as a line of natural, trans fat-free, organic and wholesome dishes.  The plaintiff took issue with the inclusion of “disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate” in his food.

Disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate has various approved uses in food.  ConAgra maintains that the ingredient qualifies as “natural” but that it is in the process of being removed from Alexia products and that the transition will be complete by May 2012.

In the meantime, until regulators or the courts lend some clarity to the meaning of “natural,” if you have products labeled as natural and you haven’t yet scrutinized the labels, (particularly looking for ingredients of 4 syllables or more), stop reading this blog and go do so.