Define the ''Natural'' Label or Send it Packing

Caption Photo by Lyza.

Tons of food to choose from? The \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'natural

What does the word "natural" on a food label mean? Pretty much nothing. But as a recently released consumer survey by Consumer Reports notes, "more people purchase "natural" foods than organic foods - 73 percent versus 58 percent. Nearly 70 percent of the people in the survey believe that organic foods are more expensive than "natural" foods." What does this all mean? As Urvashi Rangen, Ph.D., the director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center notes: "We've seen time and again that the majority of consumers believe the 'natural' label means more than it does."  

"We've seen time and again that the majority of consumers believe the 'natural' label means more than it does."-- Urvashi Rangen, Consumer Reports

Because of consumer confusion over the term, a Consumers Union-led coalition has written a letter to the FDA asking it to compel food companies to drop use of the term "natural" altogether on food labels. If the FDA determines that it should still be used, the agency should set rigorous and verifiable standards for foods carrying the label, Consumers Union says.

The letter comes at the close of the FDA's comment period on the controversial natural food label, which the regulatory agency took up after petitions (and lawsuits) filed by consumer and environmental groups got the attention of both the food industry and government entities. "Natural" labels can obscure how food is produced and processed because the term "natural" can be applied to both ingredients and production techniques. This means, for example, that foods produced with pesticides or that contain ingredients like wood pulp can be labeled "natural."

How does Consumers Union know that the natural label is sowing confusion within the public? As the letter explains

Surveys of consumers conducted by Consumer Reports have consistently demonstrated that consumers are often misled and confused about the meaning of the term "natural" on food labels. For example, in a survey conducted in December 2015, at least 60 percent of consumers believed that the term "natural" on packaged and processed food meant that the food was produced without pesticides, artificial materials or chemicals, artificial ingredients or colors, or GMOs, and at least 80 percent of consumers believed the term should mean each of these things. In fact, these data are so compelling that we believe the FDA has the clear authority and responsibility to ban the use of the term "natural" under the false and misleading labeling provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) (21 USC §343(a)(1).

The FDA's current vague definition as laid out in the Federal Register states that they "have considered 'natural' to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there." Yet the coalition's letter notes that:

[T]his policy has been largely unenforced by the FDA, thus allowing foods labeled "natural" to continue to mislead and deceive many consumers. The Consumer Reports 2015 survey shows that 61 percent of consumers surveyed believe that food labeled "natural" does not contain any artificial ingredients or colors, and 84 percent believe that food labeled "natural" should meet that standard.

If the natural label creates nebulous rules whose standards go largely unenforced and generally confuses consumers when they want clarity, what's the point of allowing the label at all? Consumers Union and their allies are urging the FDA to ditch "natural" or establish stringent rules that guarantee consumer confidence in our food and ensure that food labels have real meaning.

See Consumer Unions' petition to fix the "natural" food label.


Image "New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lombard" by Lyza on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.