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End the confusion over the term 'natural' on food labels

Consumer Reports calls for a ban on this misleading word

Published: July 04, 2014 12:00 PM

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Have you ever bought food with a "natural" label becasue you thought it was better for you? If so, you are not alone.

According to a new national survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 59 percent of consumers check whether the products they are buying are natural, despite there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term. Moreover, while a majority of people think that the natural label actually carries specific benefits, an even greater percentage of consumers think it should.

The Consumer Reports survey also revealed that more than eight out of 10 consumers believe that packaged foods carrying the natural label should come from food that contains ingredients grown without pesticides (86 percent), do not include artificial ingredients (87 percent), and do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (85 percent), reinforcing a wide gap between consumer reality and consumer expectations.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is seeking to close that gap by calling for a ban on the natural label on food as part of a campaign being done in partnership with TakePart, a social-action platform. We are gathering signatures for an online petition and have officially filed petitions with the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Check our Food Safety & Sustainability Guide for more information.

“Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the natural food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the natural label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing, and deceptive," Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said. "We also don’t believe it is necessary to define natural when there is already another label—organic—that comes much closer to meeting consumer expectations and is accompanied by legal accountability.”

Most consumers would probably be surprised to learn that the FDA has not developed a formal definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives. But the agency has not objected to the use of the term if “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food”—though these are still found extensively in “natural” labeled foods.

The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, says that a product is natural if it contains: “No artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.”

But our survey shows that consumers believe the label means and should mean far more than these narrow definitions, which is why we believe the term should be banned on food.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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