Say no to 'natural' on food labels

Why Consumer Reports is launching a campaign to ban the ubiquitous term

Published: June 16, 2014 06:00 AM

The claim “natural,” which is stamped on countless food labels, is widely misunderstood by consumers, according to a new a survey of 1,000 people from the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Nearly 60 percent of people look for the term when they shop for food, probably because they think the products labeled natural are better for them than products without that claim.

About two-thirds believe it means a processed food has no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms, and more than 80 percent believe that it should mean those things.

The reality is that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t developed a formal definition for the term. The agency says that manufacturers can use natural if nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to the food, yet those ingredients are still found in many “natural” products. “Our findings show consumers expect much more from the ‘natural’ food label,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports. “It’s misleading, confusing, and deceptive.”

To help consumers make more informed choices at the grocery store, Consumer Reports is launching a new campaign to ban the term “natural.” The campaign, which is being done in partnership with TakePart, a social media platform, will involve a petition drive aimed at pressing the government to prevent manufacturers from using the “natural” label.

Find out more about food labeling, nutrition, and food safety in our Food and Drink Guide.

Natural isn’t the only food labeling term that needs explaining. Over the next several months, TakePart will feature a series, “Know your food, know your labels,” in partnership with the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. It will explore a variety of food labeling concerns, such as GMOs.

In our survey, nine out of 10 Americans said foods containing GMOs should be labeled and meet safety standards set by the government. Nearly three-quarters said it’s crucial for people to avoid GMO ingredients when purchasing food, yet the FDA doesn’t support mandatory labeling or safety standards.

Also, the poll shows that the term “raised without antibiotics” could use some clarification. While nearly seven out of 10 Americans correctly think it means that no antibiotics were given to the animal used to produce a particular food, about one-third mistakenly believe no other drugs were used.

“We want to clean up the green noise in the food label marketplace so Americans can get what they want—truthful labels that represent important and better food production systems,” Rangan says. “Our new campaign promotes credible labels that underscore a more sustainable system and will decode phony labels that cloud the marketplace.”

Sign our petition and find out more at

Deborah Pike Olsen

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