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On Food Labels, 'Natural' Means Nothing

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Photo:dirtyblueshirt/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Grocery shopping isn't the most relaxing of experiences. You roam through crowded aisles pushing an unwieldy and often lopsided metal cart, scanning the shelves while simultaneously making complex decisions using variables like value, quantity, and the general healthfulness of the product, trying to do it fast enough to avoid the long check-out lines you can already see developing out of the corner of your eye. And that's on a good day.

So to make some of those trips easier, many of us take shortcuts by simply reading buzzwords on the front of labels. Words like "Gluten-Free," "Organic," and "Low Carb" can save valuable time trolling the aisles. And for a lot of people, the most powerful buzzword they rely on is "Natural" or "All-Natural." See that on the box, carton, or can and they simply chuck it into their cart and move on.

The problem is "Natural" doesn't mean anything at all.

For most of the phrases that make their way onto food labels -- like "Fair Trade" or "No Antibiotics" -- there's an approval process that takes place with the USDA or the FDA before the companies are allowed to use the phrase. But for "Natural" and "All-Natural" there is no such thing. It has absolutely no meaning in the world of regulation. All the FDA has is an "informal policy" that suggests the phrase be used on items that contain "nothing artificial or synthetic." And informal policies are essentially the same thing as having "no policy."

"Natural" is an advertising slogan, in the same class as "Marvelous," "Best," and "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands." And people don't realize it.

Consumer Reports surveyed 1,000 shoppers about what they look for when they're out shopping, and 59% of the people they asked look for "Natural." That's bad enough, since it's the equivalent of scanning food packaging for the word "Awesome!" and putting that information in your decision matrix. But the most troubling part is that people actually believe the word means something:

86% of people believe it means that it was grown without pesticides, 87% believe it doesn't involve artificial ingredients, and 85% believe it doesn't include GMOs.

But again, it means nothing. So why do food packagers use it? Money is the big incentive.

Sales for items that have "Natural" or "All-Natural" on the label bring in $43 million a year. That's higher than "Gluten-Free" ($22.3 million), "Organic" ($8.9 million), and "GMO Free" ($2.8 million) combined. All for a word that means the same as "Juicy Goodness." And Consumer Reports, for one, is sick of it:

"Our findings show consumers expect much more from the 'natural' food label," says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports. "It's misleading, confusing, and deceptive."

Because of the widespread misinformation, they're putting together a campaign to get the label banned. And they're right to do so. This "Natural" nonsense has gone on for far too long.

There's essentially two ways for this mess to be resolved. The first is by getting rid of the buzzword entirely, by putting it on some kind of banned list that fines organizations who put the word on their packaging. The second is by sitting down with a bunch of experts, hammering out a definition of what the word actually means, and making organizations go through the same approval protocols that accompany declarations like "Organic." Sitting still and doing nothing should not be a third option.

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision to force food producers to be more accurate with their packaging, it's time for the "Natural" label to also be thrown out. Grocery shopping is hard enough without having to constantly worry about being suckered.

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