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Does a little weed-killing chemical make your oatmeal “unnatural”?

AP Photo/Matthew Mead
There is no standard definition for “natural” when it comes to foods in the US.
  • Chase Purdy
By Chase Purdy

Food Reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

According to a lawsuit filed April 29 against Quaker Oats, the venerable oatmeal brand comes with a surprise ingredient: trace amounts of glyphosate, an active ingredient in weed-killer including Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

Don’t panic. Even though the World Health Organization last year concluded, controversially, that the substance is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” levels of the chemical are low in Quaker Oats, well beneath the limit the US government considers safe for human consumption, as the New York Times reports.

The legal question the lawsuit raises is not whether Quaker Oats are safe to eat, but whether the company is lying to consumers by advertising its oatmeal as “100% natural.”

The real issue

The dispute is not just an oatmeal problem. Labels in virtually every aisle of the supermarket contain claims about how “natural” they are—cereal, chicken, raisins, the list goes on.

“When a product purports to be ‘100% Natural,’ consumers not only are willing to pay more for the product, they expect it to be pesticide free,” the complaint against Quaker Oats argues.

But that’s not an expectation set by US food regulators. In fact, the US government has yet to develop a definition for the word “natural” when it applies to food.

“As Mother Nature intended”

A spokesman for Quaker Oats—which is owned by Pepsico—said farmers who supply the company may use weed-killing herbicides containing glyphosate before harvesting their crops. But after the oats are harvested and delivered to Quaker, they are de-hulled, cleaned, roasted, and flaked, a “rigorous process that thoroughly cleanses them,” the company says.

Nevertheless, the complaint argues, any presence of the herbicide taints the “100% natural” claim on the label, which does not disclose that synthetic herbicides may have been used in the harvesting of the oats.

So should a can of Prego soup be labeled “natural” if it contains genetically engineered canola oil? What about Marie Callender pies with sodium acid pyrophosphate? These are just a few of the questions that have been brought up in past lawsuits.

The lack of clarity in the regulations is a source of frustration for health advocates and food companies alike, and has resulted in a steady stream of lawsuits over the claims. That’s one reason why the US Food and Drug Administration has solicited public comments as to how it should approach a definition.

So far, more than 5,000 comments have been submitted. This one, submitted by Paula Pierce of Texas, who identifies herself as an individual consumer, argues:

Natural should mean as Mother Nature intended it. One thing for sure, GMOs are not natural and sadly, most of the “food” on the shelves of the grocery stores is not as Mother Nature intended. Natural products should be free of dyes, preservatives, pesticides, and all artificial ingredients.

Others argue companies should avoid using the word “natural” altogether, suggesting the word has become too unwieldy to manage at all.

The FDA is accepting comments through May 10. It’ll take time to go through them all, and likely even longer to figure out the next step. Until then, vigilant consumers are left to decipher ingredient lists on their own.

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