Terminology trouble

How “natural” is your food?

October 12, 2011

You probably already know that the word “natural,” when stamped on a food product, means next to nothing. But polls and surveys repeatedly show that most consumers think “natural” means a food is good, clean, and fair — and are duped into paying more for it.

As PCC Sound Consumer, the newsletter of a Seattle-based grocery chain, recently pointed out, the belief that “natural” actually means natural is not only confusing, it’s downright deceptive:

A 2010 survey done by Bellevue-based research firm The Hartman Group found a majority of respondents from across the country believed the term “natural” implied “absence of pesticides” and “absence of herbicides.” Sixty-one percent believed “natural” implied or suggested the “absence of genetically modified foods.” On every score, the majority was wrong.

In addition, the term “natural” carried more weight with consumers than the word “organic,” which is much more regulated when applied to food:

Even more alarming are two consumer polls by San Francisco research firm Context Marketing, released in 2009 and 2010. They show the national trend that more consumers value the term “natural” than “organic.” While 50 percent of polled consumers said the “natural” label on food was either important or very important to them, only 35 percent believed “organic” carried the same value.

The newsletter noted that a number of lawsuits have been brought or are still pending over the use of the label “natural” on foods containing genetically modified ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup, chemically altered ingredients, and other additives.

Wondering what the feds think “natural” means? The newsletter provides a quick wrap-up:

The FDA restricts the term “natural” to products that contain no artificial color additives and flavors, but allows GMOs.
The USDA says “natural” may be used on the label for processed meats if the product does not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and is only “minimally processed” post-slaughter. The term “natural” does not define how animals are raised or fed. Assume GMO feed and pesticides, growth hormones, and non-therapeutic antibiotics unless labeled otherwise.
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