News & Events

News & Events

9.7.2012

We Are What We Eat — The Origins and Current Legal Status of ‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ Food Labels

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Lane Powell Shareholder Paul Swanson authored an article titled “We Are What We Eat — The Origins and Current Legal Status of ‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ Food Labels,” which is now posted on the website for GastronomicaThe Journal of Food and Culture. In the article, Swanson traces the evolution of the food promotion terms “organic” and “natural” in their historical context and analyzes how federal and state laws now define and regulate their commercial usage.

How do we know if we are supposedly building health, rather than unwittingly producing disease by what we consume? We resolve what economists call “informational asymmetry” by relying on food labels, brands and trademarks to confirm the authenticity and quality of our foodstuffs. But making “correct” food choices can be daunting and baffling. In her groundbreaking book, What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle estimates that there are around 320,000 food and beverage products available in the United States; and that the average supermarket stocks about 30,000 to 40,000 of them. While we may not understand the true origins or makeup of what we put on our tables, most baby-boomers can tell you in a heartbeat that Rice Krispies go “snap, crackle and pop,” Lucky Charms are “magically delicious,” and Wonder Bread helps “build strong bodies in 8 ways.”

Two of the most symbolic words in food promotion nowadays are “organic” and “natural.” Generally defined, “natural” means “present in or produced by nature” and is not something “altered, treated or disguised,” but rather “faithfully represents nature or life.” “Organic,” in its most abstract sense, means “simple, healthful, and close to nature.” Both words hearken back to a pre-industrial age and share Edenic, utopian connotations. They imply a general distrust of chemical engineering and manufacturing processes. If we are what we eat, are we not closer to “nature” if we incorporate natural and organic foods into our diet? That is the compelling allure and implicit bargain of consuming organic and natural foods.

Read the article (PDF).