Should the word “natural” be banned from food labels? – National Consumers League

According to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “natural” means…very little.  The only guidelines FDA provides are that foods labeled as natural should not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.  These loose guidelines, which were put into effect in 1993 as an informal policy, are puzzling consumers and food manufactures alike.

So much contention surrounds the word natural that the Grocery Manufacturers Association came out in support of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act introduced in the House last April.  The bill would require FDA to define the term “natural” for use on food and beverage products, finally providing more guidance for industry and consumers.

The issue with defining the word natural is that it’s difficult to draw a line where natural stops and artificial begins.  Take an apple for example.  That seems to be very natural as it grows directly from the ground and little to no processing occurs but would it still be considered natural if it contained synthetic chemical preservatives?  What about synthetic pesticide residue? Could a very processed food like Bugles be considered “natural” if it was made entirely from products originating from the earth?

Not only was FDA faced with a massive grey zone of “natural” definitions when they first requested comment on the word’s definition twenty years ago, but they also needed to protect first amendment rights and therefore could not prohibit its use altogether.  Ultimately, FDA took a hands off approach.  Labeling practices have become more contentious, with political battles surrounding GMOs and country of origin labeling, and the time has come to address the issue.

At the end of the day, manufacturers just want to sell their product. Consumers have come to associate the term “natural” with healthy food. And so, food manufacturers continue to label as many foods as possible natural to attract more buyers. The lack of a strict definition for “natural,” however, causes it to be used in a variety of circumstances where it makes unhealthy foods, look healthy or “good” to consumers.  Even if FDA managed to pull together a definition for natural, it would no doubt be abused.  Soda made from cane sugar or other natural ingredients would be deemed “natural” (case in point Seven-Up, which later dropped their 100% natural claims).  The human body doesn’t necessarily process it differently and it certainly isn’t healthy no matter how the ingredients were produced.

Soda is just one example of the many possibilities where natural could be misused.  The term “natural” should simply be banned from labeling.  It carries little to no meaning in terms of its perceived health benefits and should not serve as decision making tool for consumers.

When it comes to GMOs, how much do we really know? – National Consumers League

kelseyJust last week, Vermont took the initiative to pass a state bill requiring GMO labeling. While Connecticut and Maine have also each passed GMO labeling acts, that legislation will only go into effect once a certain number of other states have passed similar labeling requirements. Vermont’s law won’t go into effect for two years — and only if lawsuit doesn’t knock it down first!

State legislators expect pushback from major genetically engineered seed producers, like Monsanto. An extra $1.5 million legal fund was added into the legislation to help cover any costs a lawsuit may incur in court.

gmoThe recent GMO labeling buzz has got me thinking. What do we, as a nation, really know about GMOs? Turns out we know surprisingly little. Only 26 percent of consumers believe that they have eaten genetically modified foods and 60 percent believe they haven’t. For anyone who has taken the time to research this issue, they would know that it is incredibly unlikely that someone has never eaten genetically modified foods. Ten years ago in 2004, 85 percent of soybeans and 45 percent of corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified. It is very likely that these numbers have only grown since then. What I find most disturbing is that among consumers who claimed to know the most about GM foods, 43 percent still thought that they had never eaten any GMOs.

If we as a nation are so uneducated about how much of our food is genetically modified then it is a good idea that GM foods be labeled as such. The sheer volume of GM foods in this country might disturb some consumers and lead to self-education about GMOs. Some consumers might conclude that they aren’t as detrimental as some anti-GMO activists make them out to be. Many argue these modified foods have the capacity to feed the ever-growing, ever-hungry population of this planet.

What’s more, I doubt that consumer habits will greatly change based on GMO labeling.  The people who are passionately anti-GMO likely know which foods contain GMOs already and avoid them. The people who don’t care, well they might not even notice the labels, and those that are curious might read up on genetic modification and learn more about what genetically modified really means. It is important that food producers include robust labels on their products so consumers know exactly what they are eating. For this reason, labeling food that contains GMOs is the right decision for consumers.

A step in the right direction with new nutrition facts labels – National Consumers League


You may have heard about the Food and Drug Administration’s recently released proposed revisions to the Nutrition Facts label. The results were resoundingly positive, with only a couple points of contention. Nutrition Facts labels first came about thanks to the passage of a 1990 law requiring them. Since, they have only been significantly updated once, to include trans fat in the list of required nutrients. Needless to say, they were due for an update.

One of the most notable changes is the emphasis on calories.  The increased font size and bolding of the calories amount play an important role in consumer decision making and contribute to addressing the obesity epidemic in America.  FDA also proposed to add a line to the required nutrients for “added sugars”.  Added sugars are a good means of determining which food options are healthiest.  While added sugars do not affect the body any differently than those that occur naturally, they indicate that a food is likely more processed and most likely contains unnecessarily large amounts of sweetener.

The FDA would also like to see that all fiber listed on the Nutrition Facts label exclude purified processed fibers like maltodextrin and inulin.  Processed fibers are not as beneficial as those that are unprocessed and frequently found in whole foods.  A few other high points to the proposed changes are removing the “calories from fat” section and getting rid of the table that lists nutrient labels for 2,000-2,500 calorie diets and replacing the required amounts of vitamins A and C listed with potassium and vitamin D.

The largest concession was that the Daily Value of sodium was only lowered from 2,400mg to 2,300mg.  Ideally it would have been lowered to 1,500mg as is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for people that are over 50, have hypertension, or are African American.   Daily Values are typically based on the most vulnerable populations.  It would be ideal if that applied to this proposed change.

If you are as excited as I am about seeing these new Nutrition Facts labels hit the shelves, you might want to check your enthusiasm.  We shouldn’t expect to see them until 2018 as it may take a while to finalize the rule and industry has two years for implementation.

Understanding ‘sell by’ dates – National Consumers League

The amount of food wasted in America is disturbingly high. Around 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is thrown away unused every year due, in part, to confusing food date labeling. More than 90 percent of Americans have thrown out food prior to its actual expiration date. Recently, a push has been made to reduce the amount of food that grocery stores are disposing of by repurposing it in cheap prepared meals or donating it to food banks. At home, consumers can reduce food waste by learning the truth about “use by” date labeling.

According to a Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic study on waste associated with food date labeling, food dating emerged in the 1970s due to consumer demand. Americans were starting to produce less of their own food and purchasing more processed grocery store products, but there were no standards for indicating how long the food products could be safely consumed. Consumers pushed for a uniform, regulated food-dating system.

Unfortunately, food date labeling was never a priority to Congress, which failed to pass federally regulated guidelines indicating an expiration date for various foods. It was decided that food dating wasn’t an issue of public health and thus didn’t need to be federally regulated. Instead, states took this issue into their own hands, providing Americans with a patchwork quilt of laws across the United States that engaged dating terms such as “use by,” “best by,” and “sell by.” Today, food dating regulations exist mainly at the state level, with some at the local level, in 41 states. Baby formula remains the only federally-regulated food dated product because necessary nutrients and potency are lost as time progresses.

Not only are the current regulations confusing and incongruent, but their purpose is overwhelmingly misunderstood and assumed to be an “expiration date.” In reality, the purpose of food date labels is to ensure that products are eaten at their peak quality, not to determine when the product is no longer safe to consume. Therein originates the problem of food waste. It’s actually quite uncommon to get sick from foods that are past their use by/sell by dates, as it is not a measure of food safety but instead a measure of peak freshness. In most cases, smell and sight are good indicators that a food has turned. If you’re still not sure, the Internet has some great resources (like, which could aid in the decision-making process.

Both “use by” and “best by” dates are intended for consumer use to specify a time at which the peak freshness of a product begins to deteriorate. These dates say nothing about whether the food is safe to eat or not; they are created by the manufacturer strictly for food quality purposes. “Sell by” dates are a tool for manufacturers and sellers to determine proper turnover of a product. At one time, “sell by” dates were coded so the consumer didn’t know what the label meant, but when the movement for better labeling began in the 1970’s many grocers voluntarily adopted the practice of transparently labeling “sell by” dates because it was what consumers wanted.

Today “sell by” dates can prove to be more confusing than helpful, causing unnecessary food waste as many consumers assume foods past the “sell by” date have gone bad. A need for federally regulated food expiration dates still exists, but, in the meantime, consumers should know that their own senses and some light Internet research might be the best determinant of whether foods are fit to eat or if they really do need to be tossed.

Tracking food fraud – National Consumers League

For decades, NCL has tracked trends about the Internet and telemarketing scams plaguing consumers through its Fraud Center and But there’s another kind of fraud on the rise, and you’ll find it in your grocery store: food fraud.

While these types of fraud seem increasingly common, another, more invisible type of deception is also on the rise: food fraud. According to the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a critically important entity protecting food and drug purity, the amount of fake ingredients has increased by 60 percent in the last year. Counterfeit foods range from lemon juice purporting to be “100% pure” to cheap oils, which are dyed and flavored for the purpose, being passed off as pricey extra virgin olive oil.

The motive behind food fraud is obvious: economic gain. When ingredients and the products they are used in become pricey, there is much money to be made by unscrupulous producers. These activities hurt the honest businessmen in the industry but can also potentially harm the consumer. When a product has been adulterated and those ingredients are not listed on the label, consumers, particularly those with food allergies, no longer have the ability to necessarily avoid those ingredients that pose a threat. For example, cheaper oils, such as hazelnut, palm and corn oil may be treated so that they can pass for live oil. This can prove a grave threat to those who are allergic to these products.

So, what can consumers do? Unfortunately, there aren’t foolproof steps to protect yourself from all food fraud. Less pricey categories of fish, for example, are often mislabeled as more expensive species. Even trained chefs, who handle the food every day, can be fooled and only DNA tests can reveal the substitution taking place. While there’s nothing a consumer can do to ensure they never consume a fraudulent food, there are some common sense steps they can take to mitigate the risk.

Here are some tips for savvy consumers:

  • If a price seems too good to be true, you just might be on to something. There’s a reason that particular brand costs less than all the others, and there’s a chance that reason is adulteration.
  • Pick brands that have a vested interest in keeping you as a consumer. They may have more of an incentive to stay honest.
  • When possible, buy raw ingredients rather than processed ones. For example, buy your own coffee beans to grind rather than buying ground coffee.
  • Speak out to your member of Congress, as well as the federal agencies, like the FDA, who work on these issues, know that food fraud is an important issue.

Don’t waste your money – or risk your health – on counterfeit drugs – National Consumers League

When shopping around for prescription medications, watch out for fakes! You could throw your money away on drugs that don’t work, or — even worse — get sick by taking counterfeits that aren’t what they pretend to be.

  • Counterfeit drugs may not have the same active ingredients as the real thing. They may also be produced in unsanitary conditions. Counterfeits could actually make you MORE ill.
  • Only buy prescription drugs from safe, reputable sources. Check unfamiliar sellers with your state board of pharmacy or the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Go to, click on “Who We Are,” then “Boards of Pharmacy” for a list, or call 847- 391-4406. When buying online, look for Web sites displaying the NABP’s VIPPS seal, indicating that the pharmacy meets state and federal requirements.
  • Don’t be fooled by the packaging. Know the size, shape, color, taste, and side effects of the drugs you take, and examine new packages to make sure everything is right. If you notice anything different about the packaging or the actual medicine, alert the pharmacist and your doctor immediately.
  • Also report your suspicions to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you bought the drug by mail, telephone, or in person, contact the FDA Medwatch program, 800-332-1088. To report counterfeit drugs purchased on the Internet, use the form at or call the Medwatch number.
  • For more information from the National Consumers League about counterfeit drugs, visit

Canned tomato products not so ‘fresh’ after all – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League has again called on the Food and Drug Administration to renew its efforts to prevent consumers from being misled by deceptive labeling of processed fruit and vegetable products – this time in the canned tomato products industry.

Nineteen years ago, NCL persuaded the FDA to take a firm stand on prohibiting the use of the term “fresh” on any fruit or vegetable product that is reconstituted or remanufactured from concentrate. At that time, NCL asked that the use of the term “made from concentrate” or “reconstituted” be placed prominently on the front label of these products. FDA issued policy guidance designed to prevent the continued labeling misrepresentation of these products and took action against Ragu “Fresh Italian” Pasta Sauce and Citrus Hill “Fresh Choice” Orange Juice.

Since that time, according to Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL, “the marketplace has become littered once again with false and misleading labels for products, for example, tomato products that are reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate, pretending to be ‘made from fresh tomatoes,’ ‘packed in season,’ or ‘packed from vine ripened tomatoes’.”

In a 2009 letter to FDA, NCL asked that it issue a new guidance to industry setting forth the FDA’s enforcement policy regarding appropriate use of labeling claims that express or imply that a tomato product was packed or made from fresh tomatoes, and to enforce that policy rigorously. NCL also asked that all fruit and vegetable products reconstituted or remanufactured from concentrate be required to disclose this prominently on the label’s front panel. Greenberg stated, “Such a declaration would provide information that consumers need and want to make informed purchase decisions and would close out the clever word play.”

In a new letter to the FDA this April, NCL urged the agency to warn the food industry that claims implying that products are made from fresh ingredients when they are actually made from concentrate are deceptive under federal law. NCL also reiterated its 2009 request that FDA require that all fruit and vegetable products remanufactured from concentrate state “From Concentrate” on the fronts of food packages.

Since NCL’s previous complaint to the FDA, the largest producer of tomato sauces, ConAgra Foods, has taken some corrective steps. The company’s Hunt’s brand removed the claim “Packed full of premium vine-ripened tomatoes” from its tomato sauce label, and the words “packed in season” were removed from the company’s Angela Mia Pizza Sauce label. Other misleading claims, however, remain. NCL has written ConAgra saying the company has “taken a step in the right direction” and urged further corrective actions.

Advocates are concerned that consumers are paying premium prices for products that imply they are made from fresh ingredients, but are really remanufactured from concentrate.

Products that NCL believes are still deceptively labeled include:

• Del Monte Seafood Cocktail Sauce that claims “Made from California Vine-ripened Tomatoes” on the front of the package when, in fact, it is made from concentrate (tomato paste and added water). An image of a vine-ripened tomato appears directly below the claim.

• Classico Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce that states on the label “In colorful Naples, pasta sauces are pure and simple, with ripe, red tomatoes…” when the product is actually made from concentrate. The claim has been deleted from new “value size” 44 oz jars of the sauce, but still appears on the label of the smaller, 24-oz. product.

• Contadina Pizza Sauce and Contadina Puree that state “Contadina picks the Freshest Tomatoes,” and “Our vine-ripened Roma style tomatoes are grown to a rich red color before picking…” (a picture on the front label depicts vine-ripened tomatoes and a tomato field and the term “ROMA STYLE TOMATOES” appears on the front of the package below the Contadina brand name). The products, in fact, are made from concentrate.

Other products with misleading labels identified by NCL are Francesco Rinaldi Original Traditional Pasta Sauce and Gia Russa Tomato Puree.

“Companies making misleading claims should note that ConAgra, the industry leader, has changed some of its labels to ensure that their claims are honest and fair. We hope this sends a signal to other companies that taking corrective action is the smart thing to do given recent increases in regulatory scrutiny by federal and state authorities,” said Greenberg.


Think you’re eating fruit? Think again – National Consumers League

NCL is calling on the feds to investigate a new food ingredient that’s being sold to food manufacturers as a “sweetened dried cranberry” but actually contains more sugar than fruit and is made from cranberry skins – not whole cranberries.

NCL has alerted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to misleading labeling on a new food product, Ocean Spray’s “Choice.” Because this product is being sold as a “sweetened dried cranberry” for use in breakfast cereals, cereal bars, baked goods, and trail mixes, it has the potential to result in the mislabeling of many other food products on the market.  

“Sweetened dried cranberries” (SDCs) have become the common or usual name for a popular ingredient in a variety of foods, capitalizing on the healthy image of cranberries and cranberry juice. According to our information, SDCs are the fastest-growing segment of the cranberry market. SDCs traditionally consist of dried cranberries infused with sugar and coated with a small amount of sunflower oil. Facing growing demand for SDCs and a limited supply of fruit, Ocean Spray Cranberries Ingredient Technology Group recently introduced the “Choice” product as a less expensive alternative to SDCs. Ocean Spray represents “Choice” as an SDC that merely adds citric acid for flavor and elderberry juice concentrate for color. Marketing materials tout “Choice” as a low-cost SDC with the same taste, texture, appearance, and health benefits as other SDCs. For example, one Ocean Spray press release states that “Choice contains the health benefits associated with cranberry, with high levels of bacteria-repelling proanthocyanidins and antioxidants, as well as the anti-inflammatory flavonoid quercetin.”  

Laboratory analyses by Krueger Food Laboratories, commissioned by NCL, on November 4, 2009, found that “Choice” is really little more than cranberry skin infused with sugar syrup. The lab report, a copy of which is attached to this letter, describes analytical results for two separate production lots of “Choice” and one lot of Ocean Spray “Craisins,” the latter being Ocean Spray’s standard SDC product. The test results indicate that “Choice” consists mainly of sugar. The analysis found that the soluble solids in “Choice” “consist primarily of inverted beet sugar and citric acid” and are “less than those consistent with the use of whole cranberries.” The organic acids content (except for citric acid), potassium content, and anthocyanin content are significantly lower than those for SDCs. The cranberry content is so small that Ocean Spray must add color in the form of elderberry juice concentrate and acidity in the form of citric acid to simulate the color and acidity of cranberries. These findings are consistent with Ocean Spray claims that they use 50 percent fewer cranberries to make “Choice” than they do for their regular SDC product (See Ocean Spray press release entitled “ITG Provides Customers With Choice,” dated October 8, 2008.)

NCL believes that Ocean Spray’s “Choice” product is misbranded. First, given the small cranberry content and different nutrient profile of “Choice,” we do not believe that “sweetened dried cranberries” is an appropriate common or usual name for this product. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require that the common or usual name of a food “shall accurately identify or describe, in as simple and direct terms as possible, the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties or ingredients… and may not be confusingly similar to the name of any other food that is not reasonably encompassed within the same name.” 21 C.F.R. § 102.5(a). A common or usual name may be established by common usage. 21 C.F.R. § 102.5(d). NCL believes that the term “sweetened dried cranberry” has become established by common usage as the name for a food product consisting mainly of cranberries infused with sugar and dried to a specific moisture content. Ocean Spray’s “Choice” product, because of its minimal cranberry content and use of other ingredients to simulate the flavor and color of cranberries, should not be named “sweetened dried cranberries.” 

We question whether the word “cranberries” should be allowed at all in the name of this product. When an ingredient is highlighted as a characterizing ingredient in a product name, FDA generally requires that the product contain a sufficient amount of that ingredient to characterize the food. For example, “honey bread” and “honey buns” must contain at least 8 percent honey. FDA, Compliance Policy Guides § 505.350. See also FDA Warning Letter CHI- 24-95 (“made with real fruit” claim is false and misleading “for a product made primarily with corn syrup and sucrose… and containing natural and artificial colors”). If the word “cranberries” is allowed to appear in the product name, NCL recommends that “Choice” be required to use a common or usual name that accurately describes the product and makes clear that the product does not contain whole berries (e.g., “sweetened dried cranberry skins with other flavors and colors” or “flavored cranberry skins”).   

Second, we understand that “Choice” labels include an ingredients declaration that lists cranberries as the predominant ingredient. According to our lab analyses, this is false and should be corrected to list sugar as the predominant ingredient. All food labels are required to list ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. 21 C.F.R. 101.4(a)(1).  

Third, we question the validity of Ocean Spray labeling and advertising claims that “Choice” delivers the same health benefits as “sweetened dried cranberries” and other cranberry products, given the fact that most, if not all, of the cranberry content has been removed from “Choice.” Aside from lower levels of anthocyanins and potassium, our tests found that “Choice” contains only about one-fifth the amount of quinic acid as Ocean Spray’s Craisins. NCL requests that FDA investigate whether the claims of health benefits for “Choice” are false or misleading.  

NCL is also concerned about the many food products that are currently made with “Choice” or will be in the future. Muffins, cereals, and trail mixes should not be able to pass off flavored cranberry skins as if they were sweetened dried cranberries. To avoid misleading consumers, these products should be required to list “Choice” by its appropriate common or usual name in their ingredients declarations, and to declare the component ingredients in “Choice” in their order of predominance. FDA regulations require nothing less.   

NCL urges FDA to make clear to the food industry that it will not accept ersatz foods and ingredients being passed off to consumers as the real thing, especially where the food in question is marketed for its health benefits. We therefore request that FDA investigate Ocean Spray “Choice” and take appropriate enforcement action.