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'Natural' industry exec talks food, supplements, personal care
Natural chart

Daniel Fabricant knows natural products from a variety of vantage points.

He earned a doctorate degree in pharmacognosy -- the study of drugs derived from plants and animals -- from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he’s been an adjunct professor since 2009. He was a senior vice president in the Natural Products Association (NPA), over global government and scientific affairs, then left to work for the federal government as a director in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Dietary Supplements program.

He recently returned to the NPA -- the nation’s oldest and largest natural products trade association -- as executive director and CEO. He’s provided an impetus for the organization’s efforts to create an industry standard of “natural” that would allow manufacturers to apply for an NPA Natural Seal.

The association’s members include natural and organic food stores, health food stores, independent retailers and others. “If it’s an all-bamboo chair, that’s not really our members,” Fabricant jokes. “If it’s on you or in you, consumable or you’re wearing it, that’s ours.”

The NPA has about 800 manufacturing members and 1,200 retail members, representing about 10,000 storefronts, from mom-and-pop stores to some multi-level marketers to big health food store chains.

“Natural” is everywhere, touted on labels and in advertisements. What does it mean? Fabricant’s association defines it as formulated without artificial ingredients and minimally processed. Its list of “natural products” includes natural and organic foods, dietary supplements, pet foods, health and beauty products and “green” cleaning supplies, among others.

When Consumer Reports investigated, it found no shortage of food, health and beauty products that said they were “all natural” but contained ingredients that were neither natural nor healthy. Fabricant believes that’s a problem for people who care about ingredients and for manufacturers who try hard to live up to that promise.

The Deseret News caught up with Fabricant recently in Lehi, Utah, after he spoke at the Nutrition Law Symposium.

Question: When it comes to regulation, what’s the difference between supplements and medicine?

Fabricant: The driver really is how the product is marketed. If the product’s claiming it cures cancer, it’s no longer a supplement, once you claim to treat, cure or mitigate a disease. What’s your population? Is it a healthy population looking to maintain health? Once they’re ill, it crosses the line. That’s the biggest distinction.
Then, same for drug manufacturers, there are rules. Both have to report adverse events. The tools the FDA has are not synonymous across the board, but there are lots of parallels. … Manufacturers are required to have clinical trials and research if they make claims. Claims are supposed to be truthful and not misleading and based on substantiation. FDA and (the Federal Trade Commission) both have substantiation guidelines and those guidelines are identical with the exception of the cover page. Those substantiation guidelines really deal with (whether) the thing being claimed (is) pertinent to the population it’s being used by, the amount it’s being used, the other ingredients that are there.

Question: What about product contamination and safety?

Fabricant: You have to know every point that control is required under Good Manufacturing Practices. You have to have control over (the production process.) When that raw material comes in, you have to know, what are my specifications? You need to know what’s there and you need to make sure you don’t create a product that would be considered adulterated.

Cross-contamination does happen, but it’s usually pretty easy to pick up on from the record of manufacturing system controls: Did you do what you said you were going to do, did you write it down and did you review it? Are you tracking and trending it? If there are product complaints, can you trace it back to the source? Is there a legitimate problem with the product? They’re pretty strident; it’s probably the best tool the (FDA) has. When I was there, it was probably the one we used most proficiently in terms of firms that didn’t show an interest in coming into compliance.

Question: Why might someone want to use natural products?

Fabricant: I think the term has meaning to people. I think to some people it means it’s healthier. To some, it means it’s free of preservatives, additives ….

I think so often people go, “The term is meaningless, let’s just throw it out.” Well, it’s a little too late for that. It has not just been marketed -- there’re a lot of consumers that want it, so how do you shape it to give it real meaning? Our organization kind of struck out at personal care first because we have a lot of data showing there are so many products out there marketing themselves as natural in the personal care space that consumers were confused.

I think people don’t want to think about a 50-gallon drum of light, sweet crude (oil) when they’re putting on their makeup because that’s what the other (unnatural) stuff is from. … That’s not the experience I think people want. … So we started there. How do we focus on the plant-based ingredients?

Then you look at processing. You can have an ingredient that’s from a plant, but because you extracted it with petroleum-based solvents, it’s the same problem all over again.

Question: What drives the push for natural products and do buyers pay attention to more than a product’s price?

Fabricant: This is where, at least on the personal care side, the shift was. Ten to 15 years ago, you’d buy a natural cosmetic and the experience was horrible. Then I think people figured it out. Burt’s Bees lip balm was a big one behind creating a standard … I think people think it’s better than (some others brands). They like the experience; the bee thing resonates with them and the performance became the driver.

I’ve got a 2-year old and a 5-year old. I feel a lot better if my 2-year-old runs off with Burt’s Bees and takes a big bite out of it (compared to some products), because it’s natural.

The performance becomes really the driver, and I think in a natural space, if the performance is there, people do seem willing to pay a little more.

The story is also important. “This is from bees.” “This is mint from mint plants, not mint flavor from a petroleum residue.” It matters. Sometimes that’s not the most scientific argument, but at the same time, if you know exactly what it is and you know exactly where it’s from, you feel better about it.

Question: What about the labeling of natural products? How do I know what it is and what does that mean?

Fabricant: That’s a big part of why we went (with) the seal. People aren’t necessarily the best at reading labels, so can you give them something easy they can see in the marketplace that says “Hey, there’s a standard someone looked at and here’s where you can get more information if you want to take a deeper dive as to what exactly it means.” But (the seal) means that the product is plant-based and not tested on animals and it is minimally processed.

With foods, it’s a little tougher because there are some things that are found in foods that sound very chemical that aren’t. And there are some things that don’t sound very chemical at all and are. … You may see a word like cyanocobalamin, which does sound chemical, but is vitamin B12.

We’ve got a standard out there on personal care, and a lot of people have the seal. On food, in a lot of ways we’re just getting started.

Question: How does your organization’s expertise help my family?

Fabricant: This is why we are transitioning to a seal on the food side, to having that standard and that definition, and then working with the feds, too, because ultimately there ought to be a law. (He chuckles) There ought to be that standard that goes, this is what it is. … A lot of products out there are calling themselves natural that aren’t. You stick to that issue. And you come up with a way of making that cut. If firms are doing additional studies that say their natural cooking oil is healthier than the unnatural cooking oil, that’s great, but that isn’t the focus of this. The focus is that right now they’re both calling themselves natural and consumers have some questions.

Question: Is there still some tension between FDA and natural products people on this?

Fabricant: There’s always going to be. Sitting in both chairs is interesting. I tell people I’m bilingual. I think industry wants to run far and fast, and that’s the role of industry. And regulators want to sometimes push the brakes. There’s that kind of natural conflict -- pardon a bad pun. The industry is not going to do itself any good by putting out products that are harmful to consumers, whether economically harmful or to their health. Likewise, the agency doesn’t want to see products out there that are harmful to consumers. I think that’s where we are trying to shift the conversation. It’s not so much about where the differences are; but I think there’s a lot more in common. Responsible firms want to work with the agency. They know they have to. It doesn’t mean everyone always agrees, but as long as the dialogue’s open, the consumer wins.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco