Unlike such claims as "organic," there's no formal definition of "natural," according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which controls how foods are labeled. Among the roughly 1,000 shoppers recently surveyed by Consumer Reports, there was no common understanding of what "natural" means to them.
Because the term is misleading, “Ideally, we’d like to see federal regulators ban the natural label," Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said in the March issue of Consumer Reports. "But if they don’t get rid of it, then they must give it real meaning.”
Food marketers keep a close eye on what consumers value in their diets, and what they'll pay extra for. "Wellness claims are driving the biggest growth on a long- and short-term basis," said Genevieve Aronson, a spokeswoman at research firm Nielsen, in an email. This focus recently has led a number of fast food chains like Panera and even Pizza Hut, as well as packaged food manufacturers like General Mills to commit to removing artificial ingredients from their products.
More than 60% of consumers think that foods labeled "natural" were made with no pesticides, artificial ingredients, artificial chemicals, or genetically modified ingredients, according to Consumer Reports' survey.
Yet the FDA has not established a formal definition of "natural." What it has instead is "a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling." In other words, while there is no FDA definition of "natural" that has the force and effect of law, the agency can use its interpretation to determine whether a specific use of the term on a product is false or misleading.
The FDA's interpretation, however, is not comprehensive and does not account for many concerns consumers have today. The agency states on its website:
"The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term 'natural' should describe any nutritional or other health benefit."
The agency is asking the public to comment on the use of the term "natural" on food labels through May 10. It will help the FDA determine if and how consumers should understand this term.