Breaking Down the Natural Food Label Is More Complicated Than You Think

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According to Miriam-Webster, the word “natural” means:

  1. Existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature
  2. Not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial

When it comes to the food we eat, most of us agree that natural is better. The majority of us look for natural foods when we shop. But what does the label “natural” mean about your food? According to a survey done by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, two-thirds of adults think that a natural label on packaged or processed foods means that it has no artificial ingredients, no GE ingredients, no pesticides, and no artificial materials were used during processing.

So does the natural label on packaged and processed foods live up to consumer expectations? Unfortunately the answer is no—it actually doesn’t have to mean much of anything. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food labels on these products, has not developed a clear and enforceable definition of the word “natural.” This has led to a lot of consumers potentially being misled.

Hopefully this will all change soon, because the FDA is now asking the public to comment on what the agency should do about the term. This move was in part brought about by our friends at Consumer Reports, who petitioned the FDA to actually ban the use of the term. Urvashi Rangan from Consumer Reports joins us on the show today to explain the organization’s position. According to Dr. Rangan, we already have a well-defined term that meets most of consumers’ expectations for the word natural. That term is “organic,” which is highly regulated, unlike “natural.” Still, one-third of Americans think there is no difference between the terms “natural” and “organic,” according to a survey by the Organic & Natural Health Association. The term natural has unfortunately become inherently misleading, and there is no need to spend our tax dollars defining the term natural. We should simply get rid of this confusing label.

Consumer Reports has started a new petition asking the FDA to ban the natural label. You can participate at www.consumersunion.org/natural.

If and when the FDA makes a decision on the term, it will apply to all foods other than meat, which is regulated by the USDA. At least two-thirds of consumers believe that the “natural” label on meat means it doesn’t have artificial ingredients and came from animals that received no artificial growth hormones and weren’t fed GE foods or drugs like antibiotics. It’s true that the USDA has gone a little farther in defining the term. The “natural” label on meat means that the product has no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. But it has nothing to do with how the animals are raised, and so unfortunately also doesn’t live up to consumer expectations. If you want to buy meat that is raised responsibly, look for labels like “animal welfare approved” or “organic.”