Unclear labeling causes confusion: GMO free, organic and all natural … oh my!

Over the past 10 years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of consumers preferring organic foods and foods free of genetically modified organisms. While both labels appear to present a similar message, the United States Food and Drug Administration has set different standards for each. In order to classify a product as GMO free, the producers must refrain from the use of any GMO seeds. However, to be labeled organic, farmers must not only refrain from using GMO seeds, but also avoid using any synthetic pesticides, herbicides or growth promoting antibiotics. While these definitions are pretty clear cut, other terms used on food labels are not as easy to understand.

For instance, consumers interested in keeping chemicals and GMOs out of their diets may find the “all natural” label appealing, but almost impossible to explain. Early in 2016, the FDA opened a public comment poll asking individuals for their definition of “all natural.” While the poll closed a couple of months later, the FDA has still not offered a formal definition of the meaning of such labeling. This leaves the average food shopper in the position of making assumptions that may not be accurate.

According to Connie Street, a Columbia, Missouri, Hy-Vee shopper, the label all natural means “no preservatives or artificial dyes.”

Brianne Rademan, another local shopper, defined it as “no added sugars or sweeteners.”

This kind of confusion regarding the “all natural” food label has actually caused several companies to lose thousands of dollars while fighting lawsuits. Starting back in 2015, KIND snack company was sued over its labeling of “all natural” and “healthy.” At the time, the FDA stated it would review the definition of this “natural” label, yet an answer was never provided.

The owner of Quaker Oats was also sued on the issue over their Quaker Oats 100 percent natural products. According to an article in the New York Times from May 2016, the lawsuit resulted over the presence of glyphosate, the active ingredient in a commonly used weed killer. Even though the level detected in the oatmeal is below the limit set by regulators, it is not a naturally occurring ingredient. Today, many major companies are shying away from the “all natural” product as there are no regulatory guidelines for producers to follow in order to achieve proper food labeling.

Until the FDA offers a definition, the “all natural” label will remain in question. As for now, both the public and producer companies await the definition of “all natural” from the FDA.