It turns out that the “natural” label means almost nothing. You may be envisioning bucolic family farms with happy cows standing knee deep in waving grass, but food companies just see dollar signs.
Quick: You’re in a hurry to grab a package of chicken for dinner and you’re faced with two choices: regular chicken and one with a pretty, “all natural” label. Which one do you choose? For most of us, we’d go with the natural product every time. Who wants to ingest more chemicals than they have to?
While manufacturers have been calling foods “all natural,” “natural,” or “100 percent natural” since the 1940s, the FDA has refused to define the terms. Instead, they say simply that you shouldn’t call a food natural if it contains artificial flavor, color or other synthetic additives. This means foods made with unsafe farming practices or containing pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, hydrogenated oils, added sugars (including high fructose corn syrup) and any other food additive that was originally derived from a plant or animal source are all free to call themselves natural.
You could see an all-natural label on a jar of peanut butter containing only organic peanuts and on the jar right next to it that has added sugar and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
And people are starting to get angry about being misled.
This is why Urvashi Rangan, the director of consumer safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports, is submitting formal petitions to the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to get the word “natural” banned from food marketing. It would be better if the FDA would come out and define the terms, but if the years-long battle of the definition of “organic” is any indication then it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Industry experts add that they aren’t hopeful the ban will take place, as the FDA doesn’t see this as a consumer safety issue. People in the past have tried suing individual companies for falsely claiming their product was natural, but court rulings have gone both ways with no clear standard emerging.
In the meantime, the next time you’re standing at the store trying to decide which product to buy, you might want to just ignore the fancy labels and read the ingredient list instead.