By Daniel Engber
— Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers are made from flour, oil, milk, and salt, and not much else. The cheddar variety is "baked with real cheese" and contains no artificial preservatives. But are these crucian crackers really "natural," as the package claims? Or are they fishy Frankenfoods?
Last week a woman in Colorado sued the Pepperidge farmers over what she said were bogus claims about their Goldfish. The company had "mistakenly or misleadingly represented that its Cheddar Goldfish crackers are 'Natural,' " she complained in her complaint, "when it fact, they are not." Since the soybean oil used in the snacks is made from genetically modified crops, and since those crops "contain genes and/or DNA that would not normally be in them," she concluded that the Goldfish "are thus unnatural."
The lawsuit came just days after the defeat of California's Proposition 37, which would have enshrined the reasoning behind her complaint into law. Prop. 37 said that any foodstuff made with genetically modified organisms should be identified as such with a cautionary phrase plastered on its packaging, and also that it could not be marketed as "natural." If the law had passed, it would have made producers add one phrase and take away another. It would have legislated what food was and also what it wasn't.
But the debate surrounding Prop. 37 showed how slippery these sorts of rules can be. The proposition's wording made it sound like "natural" claims would have been banned not just from GMOs, but from any processed food at all. A nonpartisan analysis said the prohibition could be applied to any edible that had been canned, smoked, pressed, cooked, frozen, dried, fermented, or milled. No more natural sun-dried raisins. No more natural sauerkraut.
Supporters of Prop. 37 called this a distraction from the law's intent — a sloppy wording that could be ignored in practice. Still, the hiccup called attention to the fact that "natural" doesn't have a simple definition or really any definition whatsoever. Almost all the food we eat has been altered by human hands, if not intervened with in some major way. It may seem obvious that lab-made species in particular are inauthentic, but what about crops derived from millennia of careful breeding and isolated from their "natural" forms by countless generations? Or what about crops that do occur in nature but are then processed in a factory to squeeze out all their oil or their sugar — are they still natural?
In practice our assessments of what is or isn't natural have as much to do with habit as they do with biochemistry. A survey released last week, of 4,000 people in eight European countries, found that lots of people would rather eat more "natural" foods — 74 percent called these products healthier, and 72 percent said they'd pay a premium to get them. But respondents didn't have a consistent sense of what the label means. Some seemed to think that foods prepared in standard ways — the ones they're used to having in their pantries — have a special status. That could be why they said dried pasta is a natural food but worried over powdered milk, despite the fact that both are made by dehydration.
Notwithstanding this lack of clarity, the move to banish "natural" claims from genetically modified products extends far beyond last week's lawsuit and California's referendum. The People v. Goldfish is just the latest of at least half a dozen cases against the food industry filed in the last few years on behalf of those who felt deceived and hurt by false assertions of authenticity. Last summer, lawyers sued General Mills over the nature of its Nature Valley granola bars. In December, a lawsuit pointed out that Frito-Lay's Tostitos and SunChips are not in fact "made with ALL NATURAL ingredients," unless you think that genetically modified grains are natural. Last year, plaintiffs also targeted the GMOs in Kashi breakfast cereals and the genetically modified "all-natural corn" in Kix. ConAgra was accused of making dubious "natural" claims on four varieties of Wesson cooking oil, all of which derive from genetically modified crops.
What will happen in these cases? It's hard to say since there are no laws about the "natural" claim, and the Food and Drug Administration has done its best to ignore the issue. An article by Dawn Goulet published on the website of the American Bar Association lays out the recent history: In the early 1990s, the agency started working on a formal definition of the claim but backed off on account of what it called "resource limitations and other agency priorities." That left in place an advisory opinion — as opposed to a binding regulation — saying only that natural foods are those that lack "artificial or synthetic" additives.
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.
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 package.
Engber is a columnist for Slate.