In the spring of 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced, yet again, its intention to work toward the creation of definitions and standards for the use of the term “natural” in food labeling. While this news was welcomed by food advocacy groups, the fact that the word “natural” lacks a meaningful, regulated definition may have come as something of a surprise to the many consumers who purposefully seek out and purchase foods labeled as “natural” in the belief that they are healthier and safer.
The discussion around the term “natural” perfectly illustrates the fact that when it comes to food marketing, things are not always what they appear to be. For a closer look at the confusing world of “natural” food, read on for some surprising facts about this term:
‘Natural’ has been used in food labeling for more than 40 years.
Before the late 1960s, labels featured very few details about the nutritional content of the foods to which they were applied. However, as processed foods became increasingly available (and sought-after) in the marketplace, consumers wanted more nutritional information in order to better understand the products they were purchasing. It was this strong consumer demand, among other factors, that kicked off the development and implementation of nutrition labeling regulations in the US, the first voluntary variation of which was finalized in 1973. However, in their eagerness to respond to—and capitalize on—consumer interest about the health and nutritional properties of their food, many food manufacturers began using new, undefined claims on their labels that made statements or implications about the food’s special value. “Natural” was just such a claim.
Consumers make certain assumptions about the term ‘natural’…
Despite its lack of a meaningful definition, “natural” conjures up some strong associations for consumers. According to a nationally representative study conducted by Consumer Reports in 2015, between 60% and 63% of consumers said that they thought a “natural” label on packaged and processed foods meant that the foods were free of artificial materials and chemicals, artificial ingredients and colors, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
…but these assumptions don’t always match up with the reality.
To further explore whether foods labeled “natural” deliver what they imply, Consumer Reports investigated a sampling of processed and packaged food products in December 2015. All of the products—which included sweet potato fries, soda, vegetable oil, and shredded cheese—used the term “natural” in some way, but upon closer examination, all were found to contain some form of artificial additives or GMO products. (As part of this research, Consumer Reports contacted all the companies that manufactured the products with specific questions about ingredients and production and processing methods.)
There are some foods that are allowed to be labeled ‘natural.’
Making the “natural” situation even more confusing is the fact that “natural” does have a specific meaning when it’s applied to meat, eggs, and poultry only. This is because these products are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and not, as all other foods are, by the FDA. According to USDA rules, beef and poultry products can only be labeled as “natural” if they have no added colors or artificial ingredients and if they were not fundamentally altered during processing.
Cases involving food labeling are on the rise…
Consumers and food advocacy organizations are increasingly taking their frustration with misleading food labeling practices to court. In 2008, the number of active food labeling class actions that were pending in federal court was about 20. By 2016, just eight years later, that number had risen to more than 425, according to the US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Cases involving the “natural” label in particular have also been on the rise: in 2017, 22% more “natural” cases were filed than in 2016.
…which is leading to a decrease in the use of the term ‘natural.’
Not surprisingly, the surge in food labeling litigation has resulted in major brands turning away from the use of contentious terms such as “natural” in their packaging, labeling, and marketing. As described in a 2016 Time Magazine article, 30.4% of food products and 45.5% of beverage products marketed in 2010 claimed to be “natural.” By 2013, these figures had fallen to 22.1% and 34% respectively. Most industry insiders suspect that this is an attempt by these brands to avoid future legal action or disputes about misleading labels.
Despite the issues surrounding it, ‘natural’ remains a sales booster.
For all the issues surrounding it, there’s no question that the term “natural” still wields significant power over the average consumer. According to the Washington Post, the food industry annually sells almost $41 billion worth of food that features the label “natural.” When it comes to health and nutrition claims on food labels, the total makes “natural” the second-highest seller, outranked only by labels that reference the product’s fat content.