New Bill Would Finally Define "Natural" Food Labels

A new bill introduced to Congress would force the FDA to come up with concrete definitions for misleading and vague food labels.

September 20, 2013

The Food Labeling Modernization Act would actually make that "natural" label meaningful.

Sick of trying to figure out whether "natural" foods are, in fact, made from ingredients you can find in nature and not ones that started life in a lab and trying to read impossibly small Ingredients lists? So is Congress, apparently. Congressman Frank Pallone (D–N.J.) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D–Ct.) have just introduced a new bill, the Food Labeling Modernization Act, that would bring some concrete definitions to the proliferation of meaningless food labels on store shelves and make outdated Nutrition Facts panels more useful from a health perspective.


Currently, food labels are governed under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. Some portions of that law were updated in 1990, but other segments have remained unchanged since its adoption in 1938.

Read More: Who Regulates Food Additives?

The first section of the bill addresses those proliferating "front-of-package" labeling schemes, the ones that advertise a whole host of information touting the benefits of a certain products—fiber, vitamin, and mineral or whole grain content, for instance—but none of their downsides.

Back in 2009, Congress directed the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an nongovernmental body that federal agencies rely upon for health research, to study those labels, and an IOM panel came up with a set of recommendations: that front-of-package schemes should clearly state serving size, calorie content, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium contents per serving. The panel chose these four because calories, fat, and sodium are the primary contributors to the chronic diseases of greatest public health importance. "There really is no overarching public health need for information on nutrients such as protein or vitamins and minerals, other than sodium," Tracy Fox, MPH, RD, president of Food, Nutrition, & Policy Consultants, LLC, and a member of the IOM panel, said at the time.

The Food Labeling and Modernization Act would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to adopt those recommendations and develop a standardized system that offers consumers the most useful info about the foods they're buying.

The second chunk of the bill is devoted to eliminating deceptive claims and updating nutrition labels. First and foremost, the law would require the FDA to define the terms "natural" and "healthy" which are used with abandon on all manner of food products, regardless of how truly natural or healthy they are, and stipulate that the claim "made with whole grains" be accompanied by a statement explaining how much of a product is actually whole grain. Current regulations stipulate that any product containing at minimum 51 percent whole grain can be labeled "made with whole grain," but that leaves 49 percent unhealthy refined grains that you'd eat in what you assume would be a healthier product.

Read More: Are You Getting Scammed by Whole Grains?

With regard to updating nutrition labels, the law would require that amounts of "added" sugar be listed on nutrition labels, not just total sugar. There is no requirement currently that requires food labels to list added sugar, and the American Heart Association says that naturally occurring sugars, in fruit, for instance, needn't be avoided. Their recommenations state that women eat no more than 20 grams, men no more than 36 grams, and children no more than 12 grams of added sugar per day.

The law also proposes changes to the way that serving sizes are calculated, so that the serving size listed on the Nutrition Facts panel reflects the real-world amount that people actually eat in a single instance.

Finally, the law is asking the FDA to change its requirements for ingredients lists to make them more readable. The proposed new list specifications, example below, would be changed from its current all-caps presentation of terms separated by commas to uppercase and lowercase, separated by bullets. The idea is that the lists would be easier and faster to scan while shopping.