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.