Retail

The Absolute Meaninglessness Of ‘Natural’ Foods

When a consumer buys a food product that is labeled as “natural,” he or she might be thinking that the item contains no artificial ingredients and/or was made without pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A retailer that labels a product as “natural” can, on one hand, be truthfully indicating any of the above factors.

On the other hand, a company can slap “natural” on a food item that’s jacked up with artificial ingredients, Yellow Dye #5 and enough growth hormones to warrant an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine — or any number of such elements that are far from the dictionary definition of “natural” — and not suffer any kind of consequence because, from the point of regulation in the U.S., the label of “natural” effectively means diddly-squat.

Although more than half (62 percent) of Americans, according to a recent study from Consumer Reports, make a point to purchase groceries that carry that designation, while close to half believe that such claims have been independently verified, the fact is that the term “natural” is not clearly defined — nor is the application of it to processed foods regulated — by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other such organization.

Consumer Reports has petitioned the FDA to ban the use of “natural” on food product labels (including asking the Department of Agriculture to do the same with regards to meat and poultry); the agency, in response, has actually turned to the grocery shopping American public to gather opinions as to what circumstances warrant the inclusion of the word “natural” on food labels — and what ones do not.

Basically, most concerned parties are somewhat at a loss as to how exactly to proceed here.

For some time now, Consumer Reports has been making the case that labeling foods as “natural” is often deliberately misleading on the part of the manufacturers. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, ­director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, says: “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.”

The term “natural,” the organization argues, is too easily confused with “organic” — an observation supported by consumers’ comments in the aforementioned petition, one of which stated: “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.” Consumer Reports believes, for one thing, that the FDA should require verification for the use of the term “natural” on labels, as it currently does for the use of the word “organic.”

On the other side of the argument, perhaps unsurprisingly, are organizations like the Snack Food Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Grocery Manufacturers Association — the latter of which, Consumer Reports shares, has filed a petition of its own with the FDA arguing that the term “natural” should continue to be allowed to be applied to foods that contain GMOs.

Scientific validity of such a position aside, the crux of the argument of food companies — and it’s not a completely dismissible one — that would like to continue profiting from maybe-sorta not being completely clear about what they mean when they describe products as “natural” is essentially: Hey, we’ve been allowed to do it for this long. Why is it a problem all of a sudden?

That’s really a question for the FDA to answer; and — while the agency’s heart may be in the right place regarding its tack of asking consumers to tell it what it should do — it’s clear that Consumer Reports does not view that as a proactive enough solution for what it regards as a longstanding problem.

In trying to rally consumers to support regulation of the term “natural” — part of its “#FixNatural” social campaign — the outlet shares a number of what are arguably egregious instances of food retailers applying the “natural” label to products.

Ultimately, any change regarding this issue is going to have to be motivated by consumers. Either they’re going to demand clarity in the use of a wide-ranging word that carries narrow implications, or they’re just going to close their eyes and “eat their vegetables” — or, in this case, chemicals, as it were.

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