Why We Must Demand a Clear Definition for 'Natural'

The FDA still does not have an official designation for the term


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still does not have an official designation for the term "natural," although it says it is trying.

In March 2018, the agency announced it would be announcing one “very soon,” which it has not. The problem is that most people emotionally believe they know what “natural” is.

For most, “natural” recalls a time when food was the way it was supposed to be, before we started adding artificial colors, preservatives, additives and the like.

Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., wrote in The Washington Post that “natural” connotes “goodness,” dissecting the current lawsuit over the relative natural or unnatural merits of LaCroix sparkling water. “Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health,” he wrote. “Physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy.’”

Are we over thinking this a bit?

Levinovitz in an interview with Rachel Sugar on Vox.com said the way that we create identity for ourselves is—in part, at least—through rituals, and the ritual of eating is a really important one.

He said it became clear through his research that “natural” was sort of a secular stand-in for a generalized understanding of goodness, which in religion you’d call holiness, or purity, or something like that.  

Sugar said the FDA has yet to offer a definition of “natural,” which makes sense, because it sounds like you’re saying it’s just really, really hard to define. To which Levinovitz responded that “it’s impossible." 

So as these debates continue and the FDA continues to ask for public comment on how to define it, one thing comes crystal clear to me—what the FDA has to do is frankly eliminate the word natural to be used on foods and packaging entirely. Otherwise we will continue this farce.


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