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For many people, the term “natural” is synonymous with “organic.” But when it comes to food labels, the two terms could hardly be more opposite.
The majority of Americans believe that when a food product is labeled “natural,” it upholds standards similar to organic labeling procedures. For instance, 89 percent of Americans believe that “natural” labels indicate that no growth hormones are used in meat and poultry products, while 87 percent believe “natural” means no chemicals are used in processing the food, according to a survey by Consumer Reports National Research Center.
The large majority of Americans also believe that “natural” labels indicate that animals were not given antibiotics or other drugs, that animals were not fed GMO food or artificial ingredients, and that food products are free from toxic pesticides, artificial ingredients or genetically modified organisms, the survey stated.
“If that widely held understanding of what ‘natural’ means were true, it would be a pretty effective label,” said Willy Blackmore, TakePart’s food editor.
But it’s not.
Because the Food and Drug Administration has not developed a definition for the term “natural,” the label can mean mostly anything.
Organic products must meet certain production and labeling requirements to receive the “organic” label by the USDA. For instance, products must be made without methods such as genetic engineering, and companies must follow all organic regulations set by the USDA.
That is not the case with the term “natural,” though. The FDA says on its website that defining food as “natural” is “difficult” because the “food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.”
While the FDA said it is not opposed to companies using the word “natural” on food products that do not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, Blackmore noted that there already are products on the market that are labeled “natural” and contain artificial colors.
“’Natural’ can mean any number of different things, depending on where in the U.S. you are, who the food manufacturer is and what store is carrying the product,” a blogger for Stonyfield Organic wrote. The company sells organic food. “In fact, the FDA has said it’s okay to call high-fructose corn syrup ‘natural.’
“But federal regulations strictly define the term ‘organic.’” Stonyfield continued. “When you see ‘organic’ on the label, you know that food was made with a set of farming and production practices defined and regulated, in great detail, by the USDA.”
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The practice of using the word “natural” has gotten so out of hand that Consumer Reports wants its use banned.
Although the “natural” label garners more than $40 billion in profits each year for the food industry, the Stonyfield blogger added that the label means little when it comes to the quality of food. The USDA organic seal, however, assures consumers that a food product has been made without pesticides, GMOs and antibiotics.
“Natural” labels are not the only problematic labels being used, noted Washington Post reporter Roberto A. Ferdman, as words such as “antioxidants,” “protein” and various other vitamins and minerals are often used on packaging without much clarity on how healthy the product is. And with big profits to be made, misleading food labels are a trend that will likely worsen.
“Too many people believe they’re avoiding toxic pesticides, artificial growth hormones and GMOs when they buy food labeled ‘natural,’” stated a report from TakePart and Consumer Reports. “We need truthful and meaningful labels that inform consumers, not confuse them.”
Do you buy foods based on the “natural” label? What do you think should be done? Tell us in the comments section below.