What does natural mean, anyway?

Jul 10, 2014

Consumer Reports and the social action group, TakePart, are using the results of a recent study on consumer perceptions of "natural" on food packaging to attempt to have the word banned.

Alternative understandings of the term were expressed by 1,000 shoppers. Of those participating, 60 per cent deliberately look for the word, with two-thirds believing it means products don’t contain "artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms — including artificial growth hormones, antibiotics or drugs in meat."

Further, 80 percent think using "natural" on the label should mean those things because, Consumer Reports hypothesizes, consumers believe "products labeled natural are better for them than products without that claim." They also found that 90 percent of participants want foods containing GMOs to be labeled, showing they meet government-set safety standards.

Urvashi Rangan, executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports, declared the word "misleading, confusing, and deceptive." She added, "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."

The two organizations have a petition and further information at takepart.com/food-labels.

takepart ConsumerReports petition

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) supports voluntary labelng, as advised by the FDA. The group’s most recent statement on "natural" labels, endorsing the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) policy, came in response to The Guardian’s request for a comment about the Consumer Reports survey. USDA’s definition simply states products must "contain no artificial ingredients" and be "minimally processed."

Coverage of the Consumer Reports survey by Fox News referred to a previous, two-year attempt by the FDA to create a precise standard that ended in failure because it was "too complex."

Class-action lawsuits are also putting on the pressure, according to The Guardian, with several manufacturers already removing "natural" from packaging as a result. With $40 billion worth of "natural" food sold every year, according to Nielsen, the industry may be forced to find its own way.

Do you agree the term “natural” on food labels is misleading to consumers? Should “natural” be banned as a product claim? Is there a role for retailers in clearing up the confusion?

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23 Comments on "What does natural mean, anyway?"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

“Natural” is right up there with “organic” and “lite” as a relatively meaningless term. If we believe the government should protect its citizens from the evils of marketing executives, then yes, it should be banned. If we believe shoppers are smart enough to read a label, no. Manufacturers would do well to make labels clear, then we wouldn’t be looking at regulation.

Ryan Mathews

It is totally misleading as—often—is the term “organic.”

There is a very old tool of linguistic logic that asserts that to be a valid proposition a statement’s opposite must also hold the potential to be valid. So, borrowing from the ancient Greeks for a moment, what exactly would “unnatural” food be?

Clearly many consumers believe that “natural” implies no anything—no GMOs, no pesticides, no hormones, no ripening agents, no fungicides, no additives, no preservatives, etc.

If somebody made me labeling god for a day, I would definitely broom both “natural” and “organic” from product labels and replace them with more accurate, consumer friendly and totally transparent terms.

That said, I think this is a fight retailers ought to stay out of. They can no more guarantee that there are absolutely no GMOs in a food product, or that it is “organic” but has been sprayed with, say, copper sulfite or whatever, than soccer pundits could have predicted Brazil’s total meltdown in the World Cup semifinals. Which means, of course, they have to accept responsibility for any variance from a totally unforgiving formula.

Frank Riso

“Natural” is misleading. In our house, we believe if it comes in a can, bottle or box it is not natural. Simple.

Tom Redd

Yo! Glad someone agrees with my radical beliefs. “Natural” has always been marketing spin. It is a joke and should be banned. The 60 percent metric is just a tap into how easily shoppers—of all ages—can be swayed. It reveals in a scary way how deep in the mind a marketer can “reserve space.”

This is not just on food labels; it relates from food to cars and beyond. On cars, the nicer-looking “eco-fuel” label that appeared a few years ago is just like “natural.” It is a marketing/selling point, but most buyers do not realize that any car, except diesel, can burn corn-based gas. My ’74 ‘Vette had no trouble with corn-based fuel. It’s just that corn-based fuel is less efficient then gasoline.

So remember, marketing today—more than ever—is owning more mindshare than ever before. They use new channels and start on the mind at earlier ages to claim mindshare.

Years ago I created a website call http://www.ownthemind.com purely because of this issue. The site is still under construction, but when it does go live, it will take only one visit and we will own your mind.

Paula Rosenblum

There’s no doubt about it. It’s a totally bogus term, which can easily be seen when you look at the ingredients on those “natural” products. I’m glad to see a mainstream publication that consumers trust making this noise. It’s long overdue.

I think we could say the same about terms like “low-fat” (lower than WHAT?), but the “natural” term is by far the worst.

Whole Foods uses the word “conventional” to describe non-organic fruits and vegetables. But almond butter is either described as organic or “natural” (which means not organic). That’s an industry-wide game.

I’m glad that Consumer Reports, which has to be struggling in the age of social media, Google and customer reviews, has found a voice.

Ken Lonyai

Look out, this is a major lightning rod for me.

First, natural is nothing more than a marketing term with absolutely no meaning except in meat processing where it has a minimal connotation. Other than that, natural means found on this planet, which includes arsenic, uranium and toxic waste. It’s a term used by manufacturers to make their products sound better than they are to uneducated or casual shoppers. So yes, natural is misleading, it should be banned, and yes, it will never happen.

The GMA is a front group for manufacturers that DO NOT want transparency in labeling and want profits before everything. Their members have donated millions to defeat/fight off GMO labeling efforts and are leading the law suit with partner Monsanto against the state of Vermont for passing a GMO labeling bill. So when they say “voluntary” they really mean no restrictions and business-as-usual.

David Livingston
3 years 3 months ago

Its not the retailer’s role to clear up confusion. Let the manufacturer do that. Our role as a retailer is to sell as much product as possible by any legal means. There isn’t enough room on a label to clear up confusion, and it would hurt sales if consumers knew too much. If it comes from nature, then the product is natural. Motor oil is natural. Most chemicals are derived from natural sources. I think some people get confused with terms like natural, organic, healthy, etc. Retailers are the middlemen connecting manufacturer and consumer. Each has their own agenda and the laws of supply and demand will determine what goes on a label and how it is explained. With the growth in natural food store market share, it would appear this process is working out quite well.

Gene Detroyer

“Natural” is laughable. There is not much more to add to the opening comments by my colleagues. But, just imagine what food marketers would claim on their products if there were no restrictions on labeling. Truth is not the objective here.

Does the retailer have any responsibility for this? Of course not. Unfortunately, the responsibility goes to the government.

Mohamed Amer

The term “natural” has been emptied of real value as marketers have taken over its subjective redefinitions. The confusion is too widespread to right this ship anytime soon.

That is why companies like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are doing so well. They’ve elevated the competition to the higher level of the brand.

Trader Joe’s branded products contain no GMOs and the company ensures their customers are fully aware of that. Whole Foods was built on organic foods, and despite some challenges around the certification bodies and questionable practices, Whole Foods has established trust and credibility as a brand to transcend these issues.

Steve Montgomery

The short answer is yes, it is often misleading. Because there is no regulation, what one company calls natural may not meet the standard that another uses. Like other terms that have been mentioned, natural has become a marketing term rather that a term that denotes what people expects it to mean.

Kevin Graff

Claiming something is “natural” is just as potentially misleading as someone saying they’re an “expert!” (dangerous but cheeky comment on a discussion board used by many great retail experts—just kidding, everyone.)

Tony Orlando
Ok now I’m going to speak my piece on this, so here it goes. I am sick and tired of the government changing rules every week on labeling. Does anyone honestly care if the pineapples come from Costa Rica, or any country? We are over-regulated to the point where I can not keep up. My friend in another supermarket spent three hours dealing with a government guy on the new COOL regulations. What a shame that we can not run our stores without the intimidation factor of these fools grilling us over the labeling on our meats. We had “Product of USA and Canada,” but that wasn’t good enough, as we now must have “Born and Humanely raised in USA,” or whatever other source. Why? Because the more power these guys get, the more regulations they think they can push onto us for no good reason at all. Go ahead, I can assume I will hear how the government protects us, and in some cases I agree, but common sense has gone out the window. After the meeting with this agent, my friend had to turn in a 20 page report on how he plans to change the wording or… Read more »
David Schulz
David Schulz
3 years 3 months ago

Argue with Webster. The word “natural” is in the dictionary and some cause-oriented activitists want to ban its use by food companies. See how important freedom of speech is for corporations? Why should a company not be allowed to use a dictionary word to describe its product, as long as the product meets the dictionary definition, unless of course government regulators have so messed with the dictionary definition that it no longer means what everybody thinks it means. In that case, the activists really want to ban the action by government regulators. How interesting.

Warren Thayer

From my January column, “OUR ‘NATURAL’ DISASTER”…


Natural: Made on this planet, without any intervention by humankind. This opens up the possibility of food processing by space aliens, but so what?

Unnatural: Not a product of the earth. Made and processed on the moon, another planet, or in outer space.

Supernatural: Made by a force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. Supernatural foods may also be labeled as paranormal, magical, occult or mystical, but only in California.

Preternatural: Food that is beyond what is normal or natural; containing cosmic dust particles that cure pink eye.

Au naturel: Fruits and vegetables harvested in France by naked people.

Natural gas: Foods containing supernatural cauliflower, brussels sprouts, dried beans, broccoli, cabbage or bran.

Please feel free to start using these terms immediately on all your packaging, and promoting them to consumers.

You’re welcome.

Ed Rosenbaum

Natural, organic, lite—They all mean the same thing, but who knows what that is. The government labeling regulations are so misleading that we are never sure what we are getting is what we wanted. You have to feel for people like Tony who makes a living by trying to understand and abide by these misleading requirements.

John Karolefski

Yes, it is misleading to consumers. The label “natural or “all natural” means that a product probably doesn’t contain a lot of processed foodstuffs, artificial colors, additives or flavors. However, the FDA has no specific definition for “natural” or “all natural” labels. As a result, it is difficult for consumers to separate highly processed foods from those that aren’t.

What can retailers do? Stop using these terms on their store brands and explain to shoppers why. That might give private label a marketing edge over name brands. They would appear more credible to shoppers.

Jerome Schindler

Of all the food labeling issues this is probably the least problematic. Consumers can read the ingredient list and decide for themselves if it fits their expectation of “natural”. The real consumer deception issues lie (no pun intended) with the so called “dietary supplements”.

Peter Charness

So what’s the opposite of natural? “Polluted, modified, and combined with noxious, possibly carcinogenic preservatives?” Now there’s a label worth watching for. Possibly I would be inclined to buy products labeled “Tastes good”.

The terminology has been hopelessly fowled up to the point of meaninglessness.

David Lubert
David Lubert
3 years 3 months ago

Whether or not it is misleading is dependent upon the individual consumer and their collective knowledge. Why would we expect the retailer to clear this up? Do we expect the retailer to police the CPG companies? There is no incentive for the CPG companies to be truthful until they are pressed to the wall to do this.

John Rand
John Rand
3 years 3 months ago
There are always three predictable reactions here: the regulations are impossible to live with; the consumer is not getting anything like truth because no one reins in the nonsense from marketing; and the average person has at least some need to know what is in the things they buy. Sadly, they are all true. I love our industry but as a whole we have never played it straight with consumers. Never mind “natural” — ask 100 people what “choice” versus “prime” means, the great granddaddy of obfuscatory labeling. Maybe 50 years ago no one cared and it didn’t matter, but 50 years ago no one made the things we make today, and 50 years ago it wasn’t a global market, with a proliferation of contract manufacturing, supply chain complexity, dietary awareness, zooming obesity and food sensitivities and a gazillion other things that changed the world. — not to mention a level of information transparency that we could never have expected or planned for. Not everyone cares much about labeling accuracy and transparency, but more do every year, and by heavens the companies who don’t provide it deserve to be punished in the marketplace and almost certainly will be. I cannot… Read more »
Roger Saunders

The “thought-police” on this point are wasting the time of consumers and the industry, alike. The only folks they are supporting are their benefactors within the Trial Lawyers guild.

gordon arnold

There are three aspects of a communication: connotative, denotative and definitive. Words like “natural”, “best”, “miracle” and others used to maximize and/or minimize the effects of any experience are more commonly called “the sell” when used in advertising.

When the consumer is fooled into believing an adjective or adverb is in fact a real content or characteristic, who’s fault is that? In a free market trade system, the fault is with the one that makes the mistake, as in the consumer. If suppliers are forced to divulge the absolute contents associated with a product or service, this world will be very different, starting with the disclosure of a dollar’s true value.

Scott Sanders
Scott Sanders
3 years 3 months ago
I’m surprised that only one commenter has even mentioned FDA’s stance on natural. They have a loose definition that explains what natural products cannot have. It’s not as good as an affirmative definition, but it’s something—even if consumers or the press decide not to pay attention to it and instead claim that there’s absolutely no guidance at all. From the article on FDA.gov: ” … the agency has not objected to the use of the term [natural] if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” In fact, FDA has sent warning letters to at least a few manufacturers where they felt the term was not being used properly—from products like lemonade and bagels with potassium sorbate, iced tea and tomato products with citric acid, lime juice with sodium benzoate, drink mixes with maltodextrin and butylated hydroxyanisole, and frozen potatoes with disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate. Consumer Reports is looking for “natural” to be defined more clearly and affirmatively so that it better matches consumers’ expectations, which is noble and valid. To date, the wide definition has largely stood to help class action lawsuits, often initiated by firms who previously focused on asbestos lawsuits, to file suit and… Read more »

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