Market research and common sense tell us that people prefer to buy "natural" foods. Entire industries are devoted to this fact. But as Trace Dominguez explains in this DNews report, the word "natural" in this context is largely an invention of marketers. Even if you think you're eating naturally, you're almost certainly not.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently decided to look into the situation as it pertains to the labeling of food. In recent years, more than a hundred class action suits have accused companies of misleading consumers by putting the term "all natural" on products that clearly aren't. Official FDA rules on the matter could have a huge impact on multiple industries.
But defining what's natural is a tricky business. The term is inherently confusing in that virtually all foodstuffs go through some kind of artificial processing. Unless you're picking fruit right off the tree at a strawberry farm, you're getting food that's been processed.
Actually, even if you pick your own strawberries, they may not be entirely "natural" either -- if the berries grew from genetically modified seeds. And they probably did. More than two-thirds of all food in the U.S. is genetically modified in one way or another. (A heads up for cheese lovers: Upwards of 90 percent of the enzymes used to make cheeses are genetically modified, too.)
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These genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, may not be entirely natural, but they're not dangerous. GMOs are simply plants, animals and microbes in which genetic traits have been artificially manipulated in a lab, rather than through selective breeding. Once they're modified, they grow like anything else. Hundreds of independent scientific studies -- and the World Health Organization -- have concluded that GMOs are safe for consumption.
But many people still feel that foods made from GMOs are not "natural," and should not be labeled as such. The FDA will have a lot to figure out as it ponders the definition of the term. You can keep on eye on the agency's progress at this information page FDA officials have set up.
One thing is for sure, there is no shortage of opinions. At the end of the public commenting period in May, the agency had received thousands of comments from consumers, companies and enough lawyers to operate a 400-acre asparagus farm. And that ain't natural.
-- Glenn McDonald
Slate: Unhealthy Fixation
World Health Organization: Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods
The National Academies Press: Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects