Peeling Back the 'Natural' Food Label

Peeling Back the 'Natural' Food Label

Do you ever buy one brand of cereal, chips, or juice over another because you see “natural” on the label and assume it’s better? Sure you do, and you have plenty of company. A recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 1,005 adults found that more than half of consumers usually seek out products with a "natural" food label, often in the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

In fact, for processed foods, that term has no clear meaning and is not regulated by any agency. That’s why we petitioned (PDF) the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to ban the use of “natural” on labeling so that shoppers aren’t misled. (We have also asked the Department of Agriculture to ban the use of “natural” on meat and poultry because it is currently not well-defined or meaningful.)

The FDA has responded by asking the public to comment on how the word “natural” should—or should not—be used on food labels, citing Consumer Reports’ petition as one of the reasons it’s taking that important step. The more than 4,000 comments the agency had received when we went to press illustrate the confusion and frustration many people feel when faced with the natural labeling found on store shelves now. You can make your own comment on the FDA's website or sign a new Consumer Reports' petition to fix the natural label. We'll be submitting that petition to the FDA.

“The use of the word ‘natural’ is a deceptive marketing ploy to reel in unaware consumers. People are led to believe it is the same as ‘organic,’ which it surely is not,” wrote one Florida resident.

Consumer Reports’ food-safety experts agree; in fact, we have long argued that consumers should not be duped by “natural” labels that currently aren’t backed by meaningful standards. “Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label, but if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., ­director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center.

What do we believe that should look like? For foods regulated by the FDA, we believe the “natural” label should be reserved for foods that are organic and contain no artificial ingredients. We also believe verification should be required to ensure that foods labeled “natural” truly meet that definition, like the process currently used for the term “organic,” Rangan says.

But some in the food industry oppose labeling changes. For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a petition with the FDA arguing that the agency should continue to allow the natural label to be used on products containing GMOs. 

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