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Consumers Continue Reaching for 'Natural' Foods, Despite Not Knowing What 'Natural' Means

Concerned shoppers say the FDA should ban the word

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More than ever, consumers are being misled by the word "natural" when used on food labels and in marketing descriptions, according to a survey released this morning by Consumer Reports. Of those surveyed, 73 percent said they seek out foods labeled with the word "natural," despite the fact that there are no meaningful standards attached to the term.

The survey, which was conducted in February via phone, found that a greater percentage of consumers buy "natural" (73 percent) versus organic (58 percent) foods. Consumer perception on what "natural" actually means, though, appears skewed. While 67 percent of those questioned said they believed organic food to be more expensive, more than a quarter (26 percent) said they believed there was "little price difference between natural and organic food."

Urvashi Rangan, who leads and directs the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports, says the group is working "to educate consumers about how 'natural' doesn't really mean anything."

"[Consumers] think for processed foods, 'natural' means that it has no pesticides, no artificial ingredients, no artificial processing. Nearly half the people [questioned] think it's verified," she says. "But it's not a verified label."

Rangan points out that other labels — like "organic" — require standards and verification, while "natural" requires little more than slapping the word on a box. The issue, she says, it one that will continue to play itself out in court. Quaker Oats, for instance, was recently hit with a lawsuit after tests found traces of the pesticide glyphosate in its "100 percent natural oatmeal."

So who doesn't want the "natural" label banned? Companies that profit from it. "A lot of companies argue it on First Amendment grounds, saying it's freedom of speech," says Rangan. "But part of the FDA's job is to stop misleading labeling. We're all for freedom of speech, but not freedom to mislead people."

In 2015, Consumer Reports ran a similar survey, which found that 59 percent of people were actively seeking out "natural" products. "We now know that 73 percent of people are buying the 'natural' label, so it seems to be going in the wrong direction."

The group released a report in January detailing the decidedly unnatural ingredients in several so-called "natural" products. Among them were Wesson Vegetable Oil, which displays a "Pure & 100% Natural" claim on its label, and is made "from soybeans genetically engineered to withstand herbicides," and Kraft Natural Cheese, which contains cellulose and the anti-fungal natamycin.

The publication of the report coincides with the FDA closing a public comment period for what the "natural" food label should mean. Consumer Reports has collected more than 250,000 signatures demanding that the FDA either establish strong standards for what constitutes a natural product, or ban the "natural" label altogether.