Are Goldfish Crackers Natural? Is Kashi Cereal? Are Tostitos?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Nov. 16 2012 12:42 PM

Against Nature

Why the government doesn’t—and shouldn’t—regulate which foods are “natural.”

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The agency punted once again in 2007, in the middle of a furor over whether high-fructose corn syrup was an artificial product or just a natural form of sugar. A representative said, “We’re not sure how high of an issue it is for consumers.” When Snapple faced a lawsuit over high-fructose corn syrup in 2010, the FDA had another chance but failed to offer any guidance to the courts and said that consumers could read the ingredients off a package and decide for themselves whether they were natural. (That doesn't help with unlabeled GMOs, however.) It also argued that it had more important things to do than rule on what a loosey-goosey term should mean.

The government has a point. Food scientists at the FDA are not equipped to handle such matters of natural philosophy.

When the agency was established at the beginning of the 20th century, its mandate did, in fact, emerge from a crisis of authenticity—what was known back then as the “Era of Adulteration.” According to Benjamin Cohen, a professor at Lafayette College who is working on a book about this period, consumers had begun to panic over falsely labeled products: coffee cut with bark and dandelion leaves, sugar mixed with sand, margarine that pretended to be butter.

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In that context, though, the agency was more concerned with purity than nature. The government tried to ensure the quality of food by testing its composition and making rules about its labeling. The FDA would try to fill the space that had opened up between consumers and producers in the 19th century and guard against the middlemen and con-artists who would pollute our food with hidden additives. The label on a product helped consumers see their food for what it was, says Cohen. It became a kind of window, opened up with the tools of chemical analysis.

Purity is a scientific concept, though, and one that can be quantified and printed on a label. It allows the government to make categorical distinctions between, say, a cracker made with 94 percent organic ingredients and one made with 95 percent organic ingredients. But the same approach does not get us very far when it comes to adjudicating what’s natural and what isn’t. Pure and natural claims often come together on a product package, but they’re just as often contradictory, and neither claim implies that a food is really good for you.

Lawsuits like the one in Colorado may encourage the FDA to analyze what are essentially religious claims: that a Roundup Ready soybean is more artificial than a stunted heirloom vegetable or that dried pasta is more natural than dried milk. That’s what the government should be trying to avoid. That’s theology.

Wouldn’t it be easier to leave these quibbles over nature to the side? If we’d like to know which products come from genetically modified crops, let’s solve that problem without appeal to moral categories. Here’s a message for the framers of Prop. 37 and for the FDA as well: Don’t tell me if God created Goldfish. Just tell me what’s in the goddamned package.