Why Is ‘Natural Food’ So Meaningless?

Over the past several years, the term “natural” has appeared on everything from cereal bars containing as much sugar as candy to oats boasting the “all-natural” unlisted ingredient of glyphosate herbicide. These “natural foods” are anything but, but this begs the question: what does “natural” really mean when it comes to food?


It’s clear from the research that consumers want natural food badly, but they still have to contend with the fact that foods labeled natural (or whole, wholesome, or healthy) might not live up to that claim. Unlike humane, non-GMO, or organic, the term “natural” is not certified or regulated by any body (the aforementioned terms are certified by the Animal Welfare Approved label, non-GMO Project, and USDA, respectively), but a 2015 survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center suggested that not only do a whopping 62 percent of consumers buy foods with the word “natural” on the label, more than half of these people incorrectly believe that these so-called “natural foods” are independently verified.

To add insult to injury, the FDA continues to refuse to define the term. Even after a call for comments that closed in May 2016, the FDA has yet to weigh in; the only information the agency has published on the topic is as follows:

“Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. 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.

The lack of regulation with regard to the term has resulted in a slew of class action lawsuits challenging individual uses of the word “natural,” many of which have become “increasingly farfetched” following some early successes, according to ClassAction.org.

“For example,” they write, “suing Kashi for allegedly slipping GMOs into its Go Lean Crunch cereal may be easier than arguing that a reasonable consumer would have never suspected Smucker’s Crisco cooking oils to contain GMOs.”

These attempts on the part of attorneys to milk the industry has resulted in the fight for meaning to become utterly diluted and the struggle for meaning to take on an air of ridiculousness.

Giving Meaning Back to ‘Natural Foods

The researchers do not think all is lost when it comes to natural foods, and clear communication of consumer expectations may be the first step.

“We believe that providing the industry and consumers a common understanding of the term ‘natural’ would help add transparency and clarity into this complex topic, which has been missing – and which consumers deserve,” says Sanchez-Stiles.

One key to success will be getting rid of one commonly seen modifier for the term natural: 100 percent.

“As evidenced in our study, this is indeed a very complex and abstract concept,” Sanchez-Stiles says. “Therefore it is not a question of being ‘100 percent natural’ or not. Rather, the opportunity would be to establish the degree to which a product is natural based on consumer understandings of the term – including the ingredients in a product, how they are processed and how they are finally offered to consumers.”

“Industry certification on the attributes identified in our study (e.g., fresh, minimally processed, eco-friendly, local) can be a very effective way to establish the degree to which a product is more or less natural (taking into account consumers’ perspective),” adds Sergio Roman, study co-author from the University of Murcia.

Possible industry certifications, then, would take into account these attributes and, more importantly, hold brands claiming that their products are “natural foods” accountable to what consumers expect from these products.



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