nutrition policy

What the Hormel Lawsuit Taught us About the "Natural" Food Label

In June 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a non-profit law organization that aims to protect the rights and advance the interests of animals through the legal system, filed a lawsuit alleging that Hormel was misleading consumers through its “Natural Choice” product line of lunch meats and bacon. They filed the suit stating that it was in violation of the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act. The basis of the lawsuit was that the ALDF alleged that Hormel used the “natural” food label claim although the products contain additives, hormones, antibiotics, and artificial preservatives.

Surveys and research conducted over the last few years have found one thing in common: consumers don’t understand what “natural” means when they see this claim on food labels and packaging. In 2014, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports of over 1,000 people found that 66% think they term “natural” means the food item has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms. In addition to the Consumer Reports survey, research has also shown that 47% of American consumers actively look for natural products and 65% consider natural products as “better.” Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but natural doesn’t mean the product is better, and it doesn’t mean that the product is pesticide or GMO-free.

According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. The FDA adds that their definition did not intend to address food production methods (ex: pesticide application), nor does it address food processing or manufacturing methods. And the USDA has their own definition of “natural” for meat and poultry products, which 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’).”

Because this has been such a controversial term, the FDA requested public comments during an open comment period in 2015-2016 to seek input on what “natural” means, or what it should mean for consumers. If you would like to read all of the 7,687 comments submitted, you can do so here. (Warning: there are some comments that contain explicit language). I’m looking forward to seeing if, and how, they will use the comments to update the definition of “natural.”

The Hormel lawsuit, which was dismissed last week by a judge in a Washington, D.C., Superior Court, teaches us that the term “natural” means very little, if anything, compared to other more regulated food labeling claims, such as organic. Consumers should know that natural is one of the most loosely regulated terms. Natural does not mean antibiotic-free; it does not mean free-range; it does not mean organic. I think another misconception among consumers is that “natural” means healthy and it most certainly does not. A bag of chips with the word “natural” across the front of the package is likely no different nutritionally than the bag of chips without the word natural on it. It’s still a bag of chips. So on your next trip to the store keep in mind that a “natural” food label is pretty meaningless as this lawsuit, and all of the ones before it, have shown us.


The FDA is Reforming their Role in Dietary Supplement Oversight.. Finally!

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it plans to overhaul regulations for the $50 billion a year dietary supplement industry. The FDA is planning much needed updates to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) which passed in 1994. Alongside this announcement, the FDA sent advisory and warning letters to supplement companies that were selling products with illegal claims or that contained unapproved drugs. Some companies that received the advisory and warning letters were claiming that their products prevented, treated or cured Alzheimer’s disease and a number of other serious diseases and health conditions. According to the press release, “three out of every four American consumers take a dietary supplement on a regular basis”. The overhaul of the 25-year-old Act is music to this public health dietitian’s ears!

If you’re not familiar with the regulations surrounding the giant supplement industry, let me give you a quick introduction. Unlike medications or drugs, supplements are not required to undergo pre-market approval before being sold. The FDA leaves it up to supplement manufacturers to evaluate their own labeling and safeness of their products to make sure they meet regulations. It isn’t until AFTER the supplements have hit the market that the FDA steps in and then can take action against any “adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement”. Essentially the FDA’s current role for supplements, is to remove unsafe supplements from the market but this could occur years after the supplement was sold to an unknown number of consumers and could have caused adverse effects. Seems a little backwards, right?!

The FDA is finally stepping in and Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined three priorities as part of his statement. The first priority he outlines is safety and ensuring consumers are protected from harmful products. The second is product integrity and ensuring they contain only the ingredients listed and that they are “manufactured according to quality standards”. The third priority is informed decision-making among consumers and health care professionals.

I look forward to seeing more details unfold around this announcement and I truly hope that this will deter supplement companies from making false or misleading claims. I assume that the FDA’s Office of Dietary Supplement Programs, which was only created three years ago, will be integral throughout this process. In the press release and statement, the FDA has made it clear that they do not want to hinder innovation but they also are very aware of the problems that exist within the supplement industry. In a perfect world (ha!), supplements would go through the same approval as medications or drugs, and would not be allowed to be sold to consumers without some type of approval process but I’m not sure these regulatory changes will go that far. It would also be ideal to address the source of information and ensure that individuals or companies selling supplements are qualified to do so. I hope that the FDA will closely look at multi-level marketing companies selling supplements and products as well. Until we learn more about what this update/overhaul entails, I’ll continue to push back on supplements that claim to help someone lose 10 pounds in 2 days or promote “fat burning” keto coffee.