Not satisfied with plenty, Americans want food pure and perfect--unblemished but untreated, plump but not artificially fattened. It should be absolutely natural--just as it came from nature--but low in salt, cholesterol and saturated fat, and high in fiber and vitamins.
Ever responsive, food manufacturers give us goods billed as natural, organic, no-sodium, low-cal, even “lite.” Quickly queuing up along the cutting edge of science, they now provide more calcium and less saturated fat, eager to tell us right on the front of the label how they’re helping to prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.
Unfortunately, front and back of the label may not gibe: Sometimes one giveth health and the other taketh away. A “no cholesterol” shortening may list among its ingredients saturated fats that spur our cholesterol production. The low-fat soup promising reduced risk of heart disease also increases that risk with its high, blood pressure-raising salt content.
The question is how best to protect the public against such abuses of its trust. Alternatively, one might question whether these are abuses and whether the public still has much trust and, therefore, needs outside protection.
Take the “natural” foods, with their connotation of something presented as it was constituted in nature, unadulterated. Used with foods, “natural” also implies good and healthy: Bread mold and crude oil are also natural, but neither is desirable in a diet. Only the Agriculture Department is more specific about the word as applied to the meat and poultry products it regulates: They can’t contain added color or artificial ingredients and must be “minimally processed"--frozen, dried, perhaps cut up for packaging.
Some Stretch Definition
Some foods’ ingredients clearly justify the label. Laura Scudder’s All Natural Peanut Butter contains “Just peanuts . . . that’s all!” Miller’s 100% Natural Unprocessed Bran has one ingredient: 100% unprocessed red wheat bran. Bigelow Herbal Garden All Natural Cinnamon Orange Herb Tea has multiple ingredients, all patently natural: cinnamon, hibiscus flowers, apples, rose hips, orange peel, malted barley, natural flavors.
Other food labels seem to stretch or contract the word’s connotation. “Natural” may mean that all the ingredients, technically speaking, are found in nature. “Natural” yogurts, far from being just cultured milk and a flavoring, may include sugar, corn sweetener, modified food starch, gelatin, eggs, turmeric (All Natural Johnston’s), or cream, tapioca and pectin (Mountain High Natural Yogurt), and the “natural” fruit (this in “V. S. Very Special All Natural Nonfat Yogurt”) is only fruit-like, as in “Peach (corn syrup, peaches, modified food starch, natural flavors, citric acid, annato, turmeric).”
Sometimes impressive percentages, ultimately nonsense, imply even greater naturalness. Capri Sun’s 100% Natural Orange beverage, for example, is actually only 10% orange juice, its contents water, high-fructose corn sweetener, concentrated orange juice, citric acid and natural orange flavor. Similarly, Nabisco’s 100% Bran cereal contains “100% Wheat Bran,” sugar, malted barley flour, salt, fig juice and prune juice (the juices elsewhere described as “naturally sweet” despite the added sugar).
More absurdly, Aunt Jemima’s Butter Lite Natural Butter Flavor syrup “Contains No Butter” but something called “natural butter flavor.” Lipton’s Naturally Decaffeinated tea isn’t decaffeinated by nature, but washed in “pure, sparkling spring water and effervescence like that found in mineral water and club soda.” And Natural Brew coffee filters are--who’d have guessed it?--"a natural brown (paper) that hasn’t been bleached white.”
Some of these labels do seem like false advertising on their front, but there’s nothing secret: Anyone with two eyes can see the facts on the back. When consumers can self-protect, do they still require government help, regulatory or legislative?
Reading fine print takes time, of course. “We don’t deserve this. We work an honest day, and we want an honest deal,” says Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, which urges more comprehensive regulation of food labeling and deceptive claims. “The law traditionally has recognized that you can’t correct a headline in small print,” he adds, “and you can’t correct the front of a label with the back of a label.”
Still, “natural” claims are comparatively easy for consumers to evaluate. Other claims seem more difficult--how many calories qualifies as “low calorie”? How lean is “lean” meat?--and the Food and Drug Administration or Agriculture Department set standards to which manufacturers must conform in making such claims. There are regulations covering sodium (e.g. “sodium-free” means less than 5 mg. per serving), calories (e.g. “low calorie” means less than 40 calories per serving) and leanness of meat, and proposed regulations covering cholesterol content.
They may also regulate “disease-prevention claims"--"statements that relate a nutrient to a disease or the prevention of a disease,” says Elizabeth Campbell, chief of the FDA’s regulations and industry activities branch. At the moment, such claims (high fiber prevents cancer, low cholesterol prevents heart disease) would make the food subject to the FDA’s drug clearance rules, but the agency wants to make it possible for food labels to educate the public about such discoveries. “The science is growing up so fast the FDA can’t just say ‘We don’t believe that,’ ” says Lillie Taylor, FDA supervisory consumer safety officer. “We don’t want to deny something that might be useful to people.”
So with a lot of advice and pressure, the regulators are working up guidelines that would permit such “educational” labeling while avoiding its problems--the difficulty of determining scientific consensus behind each claim, of keeping manufacturers from touting the health benefit of one ingredient while obscuring the danger of others (the low-fat, high-salt product) and of standardizing wording so that manufacturers educate rather than promote. They have even suggested a new “interagency” agency just to handle the new load.
It almost seems better to let consumers get their diet and health advice--including recommendations for calorie and sodium consumption--from the scientific community and to restrict the front of food labels to words like “soup,” modified by “vegetable, “yummy,” and “good.” On the back, there would be required disclosure of all ingredients and their nutritional components, so consumers could themselves pick out foods that give them the kind and amount of nutrition they want.
And every time we fret that we may have deprived the world of a potent and objective educational force by not permitting food companies to teach health and disease-prevention, we can just consider what many of them did with “natural.”