Is it the end of all natural?

June 20, 2014

Lack of a clear definition, the all-natural claim has left many consumers feeling misled by food brands.

The Lempert Report believes so. The all natural claim that graces food products from candies to chicken is seducing consumers to believe much more than what the product may actually deliver.

We’ve long-argued for industry standard food labeling practices as well as fighting against the use of unsubstantiated, unregulated health claims and marketing terms such as all-natural.

Neither the US Food and Drug Administration nor the Federal Trade Commission have a strict definition for the term; the FDA says "from a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

Regardless, there are still plenty of companies out there taking advantage of the loose definition. The natural claim is interpreted at the shelf as a product that’s good for consumers – which isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, two-thirds of Americans think the word natural on the label means it contains no artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically engineered organisms, a survey released this week by Consumer Reports found.

When consumers see the word on meat or poultry, 70 percent think it means no growth hormones were used in the animals feed, and 60 percent think the animals got no antibiotics or other drugs in their feed. The natural label doesn’t address these issues. 

FDA Crackdown

Just three months ago, a federal judge in California acknowledged a $3.4 million lawsuit against Trader Joe's. The company misled consumers by falsely advertising products as “all natural” or "100% natural." Products containing ascorbic acid (a synthetic version of vitamin C), sodium acid pyrophosphate (a synthetic leavening agent), vegetable monoglycerides and diglycerides, cocoa processed with alkali or xantham gum have come into question. Trader Joe's could be held liable for misleading consumers about these ingredients that they deem as "all natural. A similar tale can be told about Whole Foods

The term "organic" is not synonymous with "natural." The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.” Most foods labeled natural are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and heath codes. Steffen Scheide, organic savory flavorist for an ingredients supplier says, “Minor ingredients, such as natural flavors, often cause some confusion with regard to NOP rules. Only ‘natural flavors,’ as defined in the CFR—not artificial or EU-Nature-Identical Flavors—can be considered in the development of organic foods.”

So, it seems that ‘natural’ might not be so natural after all, and there are still many grey areas for consumers and producers alike. As consumers we need to be more aware of what ingredients go into our foods, read labels and make sure they are recognizable as real foodstuff. Don't be seduced by ‘natural’ claims on packaging. It’s also time we take more initiative to encourage the government’s responsibility to regulate these ingredients and disclose the information to the public.