Are you more inclined to buy food at the grocery store if it has a label that uses the word “natural?” According to a survey recently conducted by Consumer Reports, many people are. However, the word “natural” on a food label probably doesn’t mean what you think it does. While it certainly has a positive connotation, the FDA actually has very unclear guidelines for using the term. The agency has stated that “natural” is supposed to indicate the food has no synthetic or artificial additives; however, Consumer Reports states that even foods marked “natural” often still have these types of ingredients.
While a term like “organic” has a specific legal definition in the United States, “natural” does not. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel, have defined what foods can be labeled as “natural.”
Details of the Survey
The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 1,000 people, and almost 60 percent of participants stated that they look for food labeled “natural.” Around 66 percent of people thought that “natural foods” meant there would be no pesticides, artificial ingredients or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and over 80 percent thought that “natural foods” should adhere to those standards. Again, the FDA has not prevented the word “natural” from appearing on foods that do indeed have such ingredients.
The FDA’s Official Statement On “Natural”
The FDA’s statement on natural foods can be interpreted along a spectrum ranging from slightly puzzling to downright infuriating. The FDA maintains that “natural foods” are difficult to define from a science perspective because it’s likely that the food has been “processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” They clearly state that they have no specific definition for the term but, perhaps confusingly, they have “not objected to the use” of the word if the food in question had no artificial flavors, synthetic substances or added colors. To food watchdogs, there is a huge difference between the FDA “not objecting” when the issue arises and taking a clear, proactive stance that all foods in stores must follow.
The Impact of “Natural Foods”
Regardless of whether or not you believe the FDA can be blamed for companies using the misleading term, the reality is that the word “natural” means big money for food manufacturers. In fact, according to the Washington Post, foods that used the word “natural” on the label garnered around $40.7 billion during the past year. It was the second-highest grossing food label term behind “fat content.”
Now, Consumer Reports is partnering with social media platform TakePart to campaign for a ban on the term. They’re also looking to get clarification on food labels regarding GMOs, antibiotics, the term “free range” and the claim of “no nitrates.”
Natural Foods: The Bottom Line
Perhaps most importantly, it needs to be remembered that “natural” does not equal “organic.” In fact, it’s very unclear what it means at all, if anything. Watchdogs are maintaining that food companies will continue this process of using meaningless terms to make their food sound wholesome – a strategy which has come to be known as “greenwashing” – until regulations are put in place to prevent it. Until then, it will be up to consumers to stay informed about the food they’re eating, carefully examine food labels, and be aware that some healthy-sounding terms are essentially meaningless.