When you see the words “natural” or “all natural” on a food label do you think, no artificial ingredients? No GMOs? No pesticides? No antibiotics? In a recent survey (PDF) of more than 1,000 adults from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly two-thirds of people did. Truth is, on processed foods, the“natural” word doesn’t have to mean any of those things. In fact, the term is essentially meaningless. That’s why we are gathering signatures for a petition to send to the Food and Drug Administration, telling the agency that they must fix the natural label.

In the meantime, we want to call your attention to the ways that manufacturers of processed foods use terms like “natural” and “all natural” on their packaging—and explain exactly why these products don’t come close to meeting consumer expectations of these claims.  

The 25 products we've identified below contain some ingredients that you probably don’t think of as natural. We bought these products in December 2015 and January 2016 in Massachusetts and New York. We contacted each company with specific questions about the ingredients or how they were produced or processed. If we didn’t receive a response, we followed up with at least one phone call and two email messages. We are not asserting that any of the products violate any laws, but we do believe that the government’s lack of meaningful standards allows for misleading uses of the natural label.

We'll be tweeting about this issue all through February. Follow us on Twitter at @ConsumerReports using the hashtag #FixNatural.


Alexia Sweet Potato Fries and natural and all natural labels

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sweet potatoes

Not certified organic, may be grown with toxic pesticides

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Nearly all toxic pesticides are prohibited in organic production. Consumer Reports has previously reported that sweet potatoes are among the top five vegetables for chemical residue risks.

Xanthan gum

Derived from non-food substances; chemical processing aids

Xanthan gum comes from fermented bacteria; chemically processed.

Gluconic acid

Chemical or biological processing aids

Gluconic acid can be derived from fermenting glucose syrup with fungi or bacteria; chemical processing aids can be used. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Tapioca dextrin

Likely uses chemical processing aids

Tapioca dextrin comes from tapioca and can be processed with chemicals. ConAgra told us that tapioca dextrin is "formed from starch by the action of heat, acids or ferments" and did not specify which process or materials are used for the dextrin it uses.

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Chicken

Chickens confined indoors; GMOs in animal feed

Applegate confirmed that the animals are confined indoors; chicken feed contains GMOs. Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs.

Ingredient1

What's the issue?

The details

Canola oil

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

If not certified organic, canola oil is likely to be GMO; likely extracted with chemical solvents. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Maltodextrin

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Maltodextrin can come from corn, likely GMO corn, and can be processed with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Dextrose

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Dextrose is a corn sweetener likely from GMO corn, and can be processed with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Disodium phosphate

Chemical ingredient

Disodium phosphate is an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Lactic acid

Possible chemical ingredient, or chemical or biological processing aids

Lactic acid can be made by carbohydrate fermentation and chemical extraction. It can also be industrially manufactured from chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

  1. The company did not answer our questions about how these ingredients were produced and states on its website that it does not actively source non-GMO ingredients unless products are Non-GMO Project Verified.

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Locust bean gum

Chemical processing aids likely

Locust bean gum is derived from seeds of the carob tree and can be chemically processed with sulfuric acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Pectin

Chemical processing aids likely

Pectin in Chobani's yogurt is derived from citrus. Pectin can be processed with hot dilute acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol, and some pectins require additional processing with acids or ammonia in alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Vanilla extract

Chemical processing aids

Vanilla extract is derived from vanilla beans but is typically extracted with alcohol and may also include other ingredients, including artificial ones. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sodium benzoate

Chemical ingredient; preservative

Sodium benzoate is an artificial preservative made from industrial chemicals. It does not occur in nature.

Potassium sorbate

Chemical ingredient; preservative

Potassium sorbate is an artificial preservative made from industrial chemicals.

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Pyridoxine hydrochloride

Likely chemical ingredient

Pyridoxine hydrochloride is vitamin B6 which when used as a food additive is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Ascorbic acid

Likely chemical ingredient

Ascorbic acid is vitamin C which when used as a food additive is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Niacinamide

Likely chemical ingredient

Niacinamide is vitamin B3 which which when used as a food additive is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Thiamin hydrochloride

Likely chemical ingredient

Thiamin hydrochloride is vitamin B1 which when used as a food additive is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Vitamin D3

Likely derived from a non-food substance; chemical processing likely

Vitamin D3 is generally manufactured by the irradiation and chemical conversion of a compound in lanolin (which comes from sheep's wool). Vitamin D does not occur naturally in orange juice. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Beta carotene

Likely chemical ingredient

Beta-carotene is vitamin A and in this product, it is used as a color. It is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Potassium citrate

Likely chemical ingredient

Potassium citrate is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Magnesium phosphate

Likely chemical ingredient

Magnesium phosphate is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Citric acid

Chemical processing aids likely; possibly GMO

Citric acid is most often produced by industrial fermentation of sugar processing byproducts which could be GMO corn, and extracted with the use of chemical solvents. Company responded but did not answer to our specific questions.

Pectin

Chemical processing aids likely

Pectin can be derived from citrus, apples or beets but can be processed with hot dilute acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol, and some pectins require additional processing with acids or ammonia in alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Chicken

Not certified organic; likely GMO feed

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Non-organic animals are likely to be confined indoors; animal feed likely contains artificial ingredients; GMOs likely in animal feed; routine drug use in animal production likely. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs and routine drug use. Company responded that the animals were likely given GMO feed, but did not answer our other specific questions.

Isolated soy protein

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Soy protein isolate is made from chemically processed soybeans. Unless organic, soybeans are likely to be GMO. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavors

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural" flavors are required by FDA to come from natural sources but they can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Lactic acid

Possible chemical ingredient, or chemical or biological processing aids

Lactic acid can be made by fermentation of carbohydrates and chemical extraction. It can also be industrially manufactured from chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Locust bean gum

Chemical processing aids likely

Locust bean gum is derived from seeds of the carob tree and can be chemically processed with sulfuric acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Ham

Not certified organic; likely GMO feed

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Conventional animals are likely to be confined indoors; animal feed likely contains artificial ingredients; GMOs likely in animal feed; routine drug use in animal production likely. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs and routine drug use. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Carrageenan

Chemical processing aids likely

Carrageenan is derived from red seaweed and can be processed with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Cellulose powder

Derived from non-food substances; chemical processing aids likely

Cellulose powder is typically created when pieces of wood, cotton, or bamboo are cooked in a caustic solution at high temperatures. In this product, it is supposed to keep shreds of cheese from sticking together. Company did not respond.

Natamycin

Derived from non-food substances; chemical processing aids likely; preservative

Natamycin is an antimicrobial that is used to inhibit the growth of molds and yeasts on cheese and other foods. It is derived from soil bacteria; can be processed with chemicals. Company did not respond.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sodium ascorbate

Chemical ingredient; preservative

Sodium ascorbate is an industrially manufactured chemical. It is used as a chemical preservative.

Sodium phosphate

Chemical ingredient

Sodium phosphate is an industrially manufactured chemical. It is used for moisture retention or flavor protection.

Sodium nitrite

Chemical ingredient

Sodium nitrite is an industrially manufactured chemical. It is used as a curing agent.

Sodium diacetate

Chemical ingredient

Sodium diacetate is an industrially manufactured chemical.

Sodium lactate

Chemical ingredient

Sodium lactate is an industrially manufactured chemical.

Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Whole white corn

Likely GMO

The vast majority of corn grown in the US has been genetically engineered (GMO) to withstand herbicide applications and/or produce a natural toxin to protect the corn plant from pests. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Vegetable oil and/or canola oil and/or soybean oil and/or sunflower oil

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

The oils used in this product could be "vegetable oil and/or canola oil and/or soybean oil and/or sunflower oil" according to its ingredients list. These oils could be derived from GMO corn, soybeans or canola; can be extracted with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Caramel color

Color; chemical processing aids likely

All colors are considered to be artificial by the FDA. Some caramel colors are also produced with industrial chemicals and can create a possible carcinogen called 4-MeI. The company would not say what type of caramel color it used.

Bourbon vanilla extract

Chemical processing aids

Vanilla extract is derived from vanilla beans but is typically extracted with alcohol and may also include other ingredients, including artificial ones. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Other natural flavors

Possible non-food origin; chemical processing aids likely; possible GMO

The claim "with other natural flavors" indicates that those flavors are from a source other than the food whose flavor it imitates (however, the source must be a natural product). "Natural flavors" can be highly processed with chemicals and include many ingredients that are not required to be disclosed. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Chicken

Not certified organic; likely GMO feed

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Conventional animals are likely to be confined indoors; animal feed likely contains artificial ingredients; GMOs likely in animal feed; routine drug use in animal production likely. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs and routine drug use. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Dextrose

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Dextrose is a corn sweetener likely from GMO corn, and can be processed with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Maltodextrin

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Maltodextrin can come from corn, likely GMO corn, and can be processed with chemicals. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Citric acid

Chemical processing aids likely; possibly GMO

Citric acid is most often produced by industrial fermentation of sugar processing byproducts which could be GMO corn, and extracted with the use of chemical solvents. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; likely chemical processing aids

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Some of the natural flavor in this product are from a source other than the food whose flavor it imitates. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Soybean oil

GMO; chemical processing aids

Wesson's corn, soy and canola oils are made from GMO crops. The oils are processed with chemical solvents.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sugar

GMO possible; chemical processing aids likely

Sugar can come from sugar cane or sugar beets; either way, it is likely processed with chemicals. If from sugar beets, likely GMO. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Ham

Not certified organic; likely GMO feed

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Conventional animals are likely to be confined indoors; animal feed likely contains artificial ingredients; GMOs likely in animal feed; routine drug use in animal production likely. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs and routine drug use. Company did not respond.

 Cultured dextrose

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

Dextrose is a corn sweetener likely from GMO corn, and can be processed with chemicals. According to the label, it is used in this product as a preservative. Company did not respond.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sugar

GMO possible; chemical processing aids likely

Sugar can come from sugar cane or sugar beets; either way, it is likely processed with chemicals. If from sugar beets, likely GMO. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Citric acid

Chemical processing aids likely; possibly GMO

Citric acid is most often produced by industrial fermentation of sugar processing byproducts which could be GMO corn, and extracted with the use of chemical solvents. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Pectin

Chemical processing aids likely

Pectin can be derived from citrus, apples or beets but can be processed with hot dilute acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol, and some pectins require additional processing with acids or ammonia in alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Nisin

Derived from non-food substance; preservative

Nisin is an antimicrobial food preservative; derived from fermented bacteria.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company considers information about natural flavor to be confidential.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Strawberries

Not certified organic, may be grown with toxic pesticides

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Nearly all toxic pesticides are prohibited in organic production. Consumer Reports has previously reported that strawberries are among the top five fruits for chemical residue risk.

Pectin

Chemical processing aids likely

Pectin can be derived from citrus, apples or beets but can be processed with hot dilute acid, ethanol and/or isopropyl alcohol, and some pectins require additional processing with acids or ammonia in alcohol. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Sugar

Chemical processing aids likely; possibly GMO

Sugar can come from sugar cane or sugar beets; either way, it is likely processed with chemicals. If from sugar beets, likely GMO. Company considers information about its sugar to be proprietary.

Citric acid

Chemical processing aids likely; possibly GMO

Citric acid is most often produced by industrial fermentation of sugar processing byproducts which could be GMO corn, and extracted with the use of chemical solvents. Company considers information about its citric acid to be proprietary.

(Other) Natural flavors

Possible non-food origin; chemical processing aids likely

The claim "with other natural flavors" indicates that those flavors are from a source other than the food whose flavor it imitates (however, the source must be a natural product). "Natural" flavors can be highly processed with chemicals and include many ingredients that are not required to be disclosed. Company considers information about its natural flavors to be proprietary.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Chicken

Not certified organic; likely GMO feed

Consumers often confuse natural with organic. Conventional animals are likely to be confined indoors; animal feed likely contains artificial ingredients; GMOs likely in animal feed; routine drug use in animal production likely. Organic animal production prohibits GMOs and routine drug use. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.

Natural flavor

Flavor; chemical processing aids likely

"Natural flavor" is required by FDA to come from natural sources but it can be highly processed with chemicals. Flavor formulations may include many ingredients (which are not required by the government to be disclosed on the ingredient panel). Company considers information about its natural flavor to be proprietary.

Yellow corn flour

Likely GMO

The vast majority of corn grown in the US has been genetically engineered (GMO) to withstand herbicide applications and/or produce a natural toxin to protect the corn plant from pests. Company responded but did not answer our specific questions.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Canola oil

Likely GMO; chemical processing aids likely

If not certified organic, canola oil is likely to be GMO; likely extracted with chemical solvents. Company did not respond.

Xanthan (xanthum) gum

Derived from non-food substances; chemical processing aids

Xanthan (xanthum) gum comes from fermented bacteria and is chemically processed.


Ingredient

What's the issue?

The details

Gellan gum

Derived from non-food substances; chemical processing aids

Gellan gum comes from fermented bacteria and is chemically processed.

Sunflower lecithin

Chemical processing aids likely

Sunflower lecithin is derived from sunflowers but could be processed with chemical solvents. Company did not respond.

Vitamin A palmitate

Likely chemical ingredient

Vitamin A palmitate is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company did not respond.

Potassium citrate

Likely chemical ingredient

Potassium citrate is often an industrially manufactured chemical. Company did not respond.

What Does 'Natural' Mean?

When it comes to packaged food, labels can be deceiving. CR's expert, Trisha Calvo, reveals to 'Consumer 101' TV show host, Jack Rico, the real meaning behind the eye-catching words you see on packaging.