Certainly, the current laissez-faire approach to defining the term ‘natural’ on food labels is untenable. But a consumer advocacy group is pushing for exactly the wrong kind of fix. 

The self-proclaimed protector of buyer’s rights, Consumer Reports, has been campaigning all summer to force USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to ban the word “natural” from all food labeling. Just recently, the nonprofit advocacy group partnered with the social media site TakePart.com to publicize its mission. 

Calling use of the term “natural” in relation to food products “misleading, confusing and deceptive,” the Consumer Reports publicized a recent survey of 1,000 people in which a large majority believed that the term natural means something other than what it ought to describe. 

The survey reported that consumers believe that the natural label on meat and poultry products should mean that the animal was not given growth hormones (89%) or antibiotics and other drugs (81%), and that their feed did not contain genetically engineered organisms (85%) and artificial ingredients (85%). According to the survey, substantial majorities also think natural should mean no chemicals were used during processing (87%), no toxic pesticides were used (86%), no artificial ingredients or colors were used (86%) and no GMO ingredients were used (85%). 

Here’s what the TakePart.com post states: 

“Even though the Food and Drug Administration does not object to the term natural as long as ‘nothing artificial or synthetic’ is added, there is no definition for the term, which essentially means no regulation and no oversight. As a result, ‘natural’ processed foods can include ingredients from nature that are processed into artificial ingredients and may also come from plants grown with toxic pesticides, bioengineered seeds and chemicals processed with synthetic solvents.” 

Okay, I’m not sure if that last phrase was missing a word (“. . . chemicals or processed with synthetic chemicals”) or if there really are chemicals that are processed with synthetic solvents (aren’t solvents themselves chemicals?), but you can see how cleverly the word “bioengineered”—which technically is natural—is slipped into a word sandwich along with Toxic pesticides, chemicals and synthetic solvents—none of which anyone wants in their food. 

“The goal [of the Consumer Reports campaign] is to clear up some of the ‘green noise’ in the food label marketplace,” said Urvashi Rangan, PhD, Food Safety and Sustainability Center Executive Director, “so that American consumers can be more confident in their food choices.” 

The stance consumers take in regard to their food preferences shouldn’t be surprising, seeing as how those demands are aggressively stoked by supermarket and foodservice operators—not to mention the fact that “natural” is a growth market. Big time. 

Here’s what market researcher IRI stated a couple years ago: “Products that can be positioned as naturally nutritious or containing no additives or preservatives have increased U.S. sales of natural foods and beverages 7.7% between 2010 and 2011.” In 2010, 30% of the highest-grossing new food and beverage products launched domestically carried a natural or organic label claim, according IRI data. 

But although estimates of annual sales of natural, and organic foods now top $20 billion annually, the retail marketplace is as confused as consumers. Here’s what a recent analysis by the Institute of Food Technologists stated in reference to the natural foods category: 

“Ironically, this seemingly pure and simple market has become amazingly complex, with overlapping terminology, industry misperceptions as to the size and priority of specific market demands, and the reality of facing some long-ignored issues, such as humane animal treatment, antibiotic practices, natural fortification and GMOs.” 

Wrong way to go 

The email petition that Consumer Reports and TakePart.com want people to forward to the regulatory agencies states in part that, “We urge FDA and USDA to prohibit the use of the “natural’ label on food, prohibit a natural label on meat and poultry products and ban ‘naturally grown,’ ‘naturally sourced’ or ‘from nature’ label statements as vague and misleading.” 

Consumer Reports claims that this fight is all about “empowers consumers with the knowledge they need to make better and more informed choices,” and for “fair market practices.” 

That’s baloney—and not the all-natural kind. 

These groups are pushing for a ban on the use of the word natural because it would benefit their biggest benefactors: the organic industry. If they really believed their own propaganda about empowering consumers, then they would push FDA and USDA to take exactly the opposite approach: Define “natural” so that it does have meaning in the marketplace and on food products. 

If the goal is providing people with more information about the foods they purchase and consume, then take steps to ensure that “natural” means something. Simply banning the word natural may help Consumers Reports’ allies, but it doesn’t make anyone more informed. 

And besides, there are food products that really are natural. How do you label those? “Does not contain chemicals processed with synthetic solvents?” 

I agree that the present situation is confusing and misleading. But the answer isn’t less information. It’s better information. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator