Catering isn’t an easy business in the best of times. Orders pile up, clients ask for changes with little notice, you’re reworking recipes constantly.
But at least that’s what it takes for businesses like ours to succeed. What’s not fair is when your competitors can prevent you from benefiting from a big market trend. That’s what’s happening in the market for natural foods.
The problem is, right now, the term “natural” is meaningless when it comes to food labeling. So, while my company works hard to deliver food that is truly natural, there’s nothing to stop a big food company from coming in and claiming its heavily processed foods meet the definition too. This greenwashing hurts firms like ours, for which natural food is a selling point.
The good news is, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may take action to remedy this: it is accepting public comments on a final, legal definition of what “natural foods” means. The bad news is, without strong public pressure, there’s a very real concern that the definition it chooses won’t solve the problem.
Right now, from a legal perspective, food is basically either organic - for which there is a clear legal definition - or conventional. All the ingredients we use in our catered foods follow the dictionary definition of natural: made by nature, not humankind. As a catering and food distribution company, we cook using what are known as whole foods, things like fruits, vegetables, and grains. Nothing is processed, and everything is free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It’s a simple definition, and it lets customers rest assured that everything in their food is truly good for them.
But from a legal perspective, the natural foods we make can’t be distinguished from a big producer that wants to slap the term on their label. That’s not fair - for us, or for consumers.
Having a clear definition isn’t just good for people and our business, - it’s good for a whole sector of the economy. The market trend towards natural foods is undeniable. Sales of real natural foods - foods with no artificial flavors or additives - have reached $53.5 billion. That’s up 53% in the last five years. And this is great news for the economy. By one estimate, every $1 billion spent on natural foods creates 28,000 jobs.
That’s a lot riding on a clear definition of the term “natural” foods. That why we want the FDA to adopt the definition proposed by the American Sustainable Business Council: food made without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides; without genetic engineering; without antibiotics or drugs of any kind; and without artificial or synthetic ingredients.
What consumers expect when they buy “natural” foods probably doesn’t include additives like yellow dye #5, aspartame, or hexane. What they want is something that educates them about what’s really in their food, and lets companies that are doing the right thing to distinguish themselves from the competition. Yes, this definition will mean some companies can’t use the word “natural” on their foods anymore. But their foods aren’t really natural to begin with.
We can do this without any trouble. The government has already set clear terms on what counts as “organic,” and companies have retooled to focus on that growing market. Natural foods have the same opportunity, and so does the government.
Lots of businesses like ours are moving to meet this strong consumer demand. The market opportunity is clear, but without a clear definition for “natural” food, that opportunity may elude us all.
The FDA could fix this. Hopefully it will by establishing a definition of “natural foods” that, like ours, comes from the dictionary.
Michael Jantz Moon is the co-founder of DC Vegan Catering and a member of the American Sustainable Business Council, which supports a clear, meaningful label for natural foods by the FDA.