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WHAT DOES "ALL-NATURAL" REALLY MEAN ON FOOD LABELS?

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WHAT DOES "ALL-NATURAL" REALLY MEAN ON FOOD LABELS?

Sara Bloms

As consumers, we’re becoming increasingly concerned with where our food comes from, and the demand for "all-natural" and “organic” foods is on the rise. But do you know what those labels really mean? Does “all-natural” mean anything when you can find it on a bag of Cheetos?

What’s the legal definition of "natural" when it comes to food?

The truth is, there isn’t one. Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict definitions for manufactures in order to claim products sugar-free or fat-free, there is no government regulation for the word “natural.” The only guidance for what qualifies as natural is no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows the use of the term "natural" to be used on meat, poultry, and egg products. These products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or colors. However, there are no regulations regarding farm practices used to raise these animals, whether they have year-round outdoor access or are given drugs, antibiotics or growth hormones.

Does that mean anything can be labeled “natural?”

Pretty much. That’s why there’s been a tidal wave of class action lawsuits alleging consumers are being misled by all-natural claims. Like Trader Joe’s and PopChips who recently agreed to a settlement over their use of “all-natural” on product labels. PepsiCo agreed to a $9M settlement in a lawsuit over all-natural claims about Naked juice in 2013 and Kashi said it would pay $5M to resolve a class action lawsuit accusing it of falsely advertising some of their products as “all-natural” or with “nothing artificial” when they in fact contained ingredients a reasonable consumer would consider unnatural such as pyridoxine hydrochloride, alpha-tocopheral acetate and hexane-processed soy ingredients.

Am I the only one who didn’t know this?

Not at all. According to a survey of 1,004 people by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 59% check to see if the products they’re buying are natural. More than 8 out of 10 said they believe the term “natural” means that the food doesn’t contain artificial ingredients, pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As you can see, consumers are being severely misled by the natural claim. Any manufacturer can pretty much put it on their package and it doesn’t mean very much. They only use the claim “all-natural” as a marketing tool because it’s their job to sell you food.

Is there a way for me to check if a food product is really “all-natural?”

First, start with avoiding packaged foods whenever possible. If you cook with more whole foods instead of packaged foods, you’re less likely to have to deal with confusing claims and labels. Second, just because something claims that it’s “all-natural” doesn’t always make it low in calories, fat and sugar. For example, a bag of chips at the grocery store may claim that it’s made with all natural ingredients, but that doesn’t automatically make it a healthy choice.

Here's a little humor to highlight the fact that natural doesn't mean the same thing as organic:

Photo by makelessnoise / CC BY