Consumer News

Getting Closer to Defining Natural

The USDA National Organic Program releases draft guidance on the term "natural."


Consumer News

Getting Closer to Defining Natural

Neither the FTC nor FDA have defined the term “natural.”  This means advertisers can make it mean whatever they want it to mean.

It certainly is a tricky word to define. You can say a natural substance is one that does not contain or is not a result of a chemical process, but then what does chemical mean?  1,4-dioxane is a chemical, but then so is lavender essential oil and even oxygen. Everything is a chemical. So is everything natural? Clearly, a line needs to be drawn somewhere.

One entity trying to draw that line is the USDA National Organic Program (USDA NOP), which has defined “natural” as nonsynthetic and has released a draft guidance on how to determine whether a substance meets that definition.

The guidance distinguishes the terms this way:

Nonsynthetic (natural)

A substance that is derived from mineral, plant, or animal matter and does not undergo a synthetic process as defined in section 6502(21) of the Act (7 U.S.C. 6502(21)). For the purposes of this part, nonsynthetic is used as a synonym for natural as the term is used in the Act.


A substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes.

The USDA NOP is drawing these distinctions between natural and synthetic because it regulates organic claims, and only ingredients that are natural can be considered organic, as they define the term. It publishes guidance documents, including this handy flowchart, to help those who own, manage, or certify organic operations comply with organic regulations.


UPDATE 1/13/2014: On Jan. 6, the FDA declined a request made by three different federal judges to determine whether food products containing ingredients with GMOs may be labeled “natural.” Read more about the letter the FDA sent to the judges who are presiding over separate class-action lawsuits against companies claiming their products are natural.



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