Study: People buying more 'natural' foods don't know what 'natural' foods are

The number of people who are buying 'organic' and 'natural' foods has risen sharply in recent years, even though consumers are still confused about what the labels actually mean.

Julie Jacobson/AP/File
A shopper walks down the canned soup aisle at a grocery store in Cincinnati. The number of people who are buying 'organic' and 'natural' foods has risen sharply, even though consumers are still confused about what the labels actually mean.

Not sure what the term “natural” means on food labels at the grocery store? You’re not alone.

According to a recent survey from Consumer Reports, the proportion of American consumers who purchase "natural" foods has grown to 62 percent of the population, up from 59 percent in 2014. Yet they are divided on the exact meaning of the term.

According to Consumer Reports, 60 percent of people believe a "natural" label means packaged and processed foods have no genetically modified organisms, no artificial ingredients or colors, no chemicals and no pesticides. Forty-five percent think that "natural" is a verified claim, but there's no outside regulations as to when food companies can put the term on their products. 

Consumer Reports says it regularly petitions the government to change food label requirements, and has also recommended labels for foods with genetically-modified ingredients. Eighty-seven percent of respondents to the Consumer Reports survey said that they would buy foods with a natural label, if it met their expectations.

"The problem with having all these misleading labels is it creates a lot of greennoise in the marketplace," Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of food safety for Consumer Reports, told USA Today. "If we think about wanting better food-production systems, then we need to provide meaningful choice to people."

To add to the confusion, “organic” is a regulated label, while “natural” is not. Manufacturers and producers have to first be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents in order for their products to be represented as organic.

"We believe that for processed foods, the "natural" label should mean organic plus no artificial ingredients," Dr. Rangan told ABC News. "There should be verification required - just like there is for the 'organic' label - so consumers can be assured of what they are buying."

It is not currently necessary for “natural” products to meet any kind of certification, but there is some guidance on the matter. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) typically considers foods natural when they do not have anything artificial or synthetic added to them. It does not include food-production methods or health benefits in that consideration.

Still, this invites plenty of loopholes for food manufacturers to claim that what they are selling is “natural” even when some of it may not be.  As Consumer Reports notes, Del Monte fruit cups that are billed as “Fruit Naturals” still contain artificial preservatives, and so do Kraft cheeses that include the word “natural” in the label.

Companies do this because they know consumers are more inclined to reach for products that have natural ingredients over artificially-produced ones. The Consumer Reports survey corroborates this assumption: 73 percent of  the study's respondents currently believe the natural label means a product has no artificial ingredients or colors, and 72 percent believe that “natural” means ingredients were grown without pesticides.

But the FDA may soon change the requirements around labeling food as natural. In late December, the FDA introduced a comment period on whether or not there should be a definition for labeling foods as natural, and if so, what that definition should be. The comment period has been extended until May in order to garner more responses.

“The FDA is taking this action in part because it received three Citizen Petitions asking that the agency define the term “natural” for use in food labeling and one Citizen Petition asking that the agency prohibit the term “natural” on food labels,” the Administration writes on its website.

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