The Amorphous, Ambiguous Yet Still Powerful "Natural"

As consumers seek out "clean labels," fewer chemicals, additives and ingredients with hard-to-pronounce-names, they continue to purchase "natural" foods in droves. 

It's become increasingly well-known that "natural" really is a meaningless claim, without a clear standard or definition.  The food industry has capitalized on this, the loophole that allows "natural" to be slapped on the front of a package without any real meaning behind it.  There's natural Cheetos, natural meats, there's even natural Snapple and CapriSun.  Consumers may see it as synonymous with "healthy" but oftentimes it's anything but - certainly natural Cheetos don't have much fat or sodium, right?  Wrong.

The FDA has taken note after receiving citizen petitions to reexamine how the agency should define "natural," on what foods and why.  They are now accepting public comments on this very issue.  Consumer Reports' 2014 Citizen Petition can be found here.

But what's even more fascinating is the power "natural" still holds over the consumer.  In a story just posted, Consumer Reports breaks this down for us - they contrast consumer perception and choice with the "natural" products on supermarket shelves today.  Take, for example, Del Monte Fruit Naturals:

"As you’d expect, these snacks are made with fruits such as peaches, pears, and cherries. But they also contain the artificial preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, which are made from industrial chemicals."

Or Alexia Sweet Potato Fries:

"The label says “All Natural.” But these fries contain xanthan gum, an ingredient extracted from a “slime” (we’re not making that up!) produced from bacteria. Xanthan gum can be used as a thickening agent or to give foods a “fatty mouth feel.”"

Yet adults still want these foods.  Here's the latest data from Consumer Reports (pulled from a survey published in Dec 2015) and available here:

  • 62% of shoppers said they usually buy foods labeled ‘natural.’
  • But nearly two-thirds believe the natural food label means more than it does.
  • And nearly half incorrectly believe that natural claims on labels have been independently verified.

What SHOULD Natural Mean?

For processed foods, people told us:

  • 85% No chemicals were used during processing.
  • 84% No artificial ingredients or colors.
  • 84% No toxic pesticides.
  • 82% No GMOs.
  • 87% of shoppers who buy foods labeled ‘natural’ said they would pay more if the term met all of their expectations.

So there's a mismatch between what consumers think natural means, what they want it to mean, and the general feeling of trust that shoppers have from a natural label.  More should be done to inform consumers what it means, and the FDA should take steps to clearly define a word that so clearly is guiding both our mouths and our pocketbooks.