Consumer Reports demands ”natural” definition

3 Feb 2016

Consumer Reports finds that more than half of consumers usually seek out products with a "natural" food label, in the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

Consumer Reports demands ”natural” definition

According to a blog post by Andrea Rock on the company’s web site, a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 1,005 adults found that more than half of consumers usually seek out products with a "natural" food label, often in what she says is the false belief that they’re produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.

In fact, for processed foods, that term has no clear meaning and is not regulated by any agency. That, she says, is why Consumer Reports petitioned the Food and Drug Administration in 2014 to ban the use of “natural” on labelling so that shoppers aren’t misled. (Consumer Reports has also asked the Department of Agriculture to ban the use of “natural” on meat and poultry because it is currently not well-defined or meaningful.)

The FDA has responded by asking the public to comment on how the word “natural” should—or should not—be used on food labels, citing Consumer Reports’ petition as one of the reasons it’s taking that important step. The more than 4,000 comments the agency had received when we went to press, notes Rock, illustrate the confusion and frustration many people feel when faced with the natural labelling found on store shelves now.

“The use of the word ‘natural’ is a deceptive marketing ploy to reel in unaware consumers. People are led to believe it is the same as ‘organic,’ which it surely is not,” wrote one Florida resident.

Consumer Reports’ food-safety experts agree; in fact, says Rock, they have long argued that consumers should not be duped by “natural” labels that currently aren’t backed by meaningful standards.

“Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label, but if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center.

What do Consumer Reports believe that should look like? For foods regulated by the FDA, they believe the “natural” label should be reserved for foods that are organic and contain no artificial ingredients. They also believe verification should be required to ensure that foods labelled “natural” truly meet that definition, like the process currently used for the term “organic,” Rangan said.

But, claims Rock, some in the food industry oppose labelling changes. For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association filed a petition with the FDA arguing that the agency should continue to allow the natural label to be used on products containing GMOs.

The need for change is underscored by Consumer Reports’ latest findings, says Rock. In December 2015 the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,005 adults to get their take on natural food labelling. This is a sampling of what the research revealed:

+ 62% of shoppers said they usually buy foods labelled ‘natural.’

+ But nearly two-thirds believe the natural food label means more than it does.

+ And nearly half incorrectly believe that natural claims on labels have been independently verified.

What SHOULD natural mean? For processed foods, respondents said:

+ 85% No chemicals were used during processing.

+ 84% No artificial ingredients or colours.

+ 84% No toxic pesticides.

+ 82% No GMOs.

+ 87% of shoppers who buy foods labelled ‘natural’ said they would pay more if the term met all of their expectations.

The majority of shoppers consider these things important or very important. (Compared with last year, more shoppers considered these things very important.)

+ 91% Supporting local farmers.

+ 89% Reducing exposure to pesticides in foods.

+ 88% Protecting the environment from chemicals.

+ 84% Providing better living conditions for animals.