February 4, 2016 | By

Food Labels Natural and Unnatural

REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Science & Our Food Commentary Series
The labels on our food are often the result of a complicated, and sometimes contentious, process. Everything from the nutrition facts label, to the organic label, to country of origin labels is the product of extensive policy, marketing, and sometimes even international debate. All this work, ideally, enhances transparency and improves consumer understanding of what’s in our food. The extent to which these objectives are achieved is debatable, as research demonstrates that many Americans have a hazy-at-best understanding of their real meaning, but, these labels do have meanings. This is in contrast, however, to one ubiquitous and uniquely misunderstood label: “Natural.”
When a food package says “organic,” that means that the food inside has met the USDA Organic Standards. These are standards for meat and poultry, dairy, crops, and food processing. They specify medications an animal can and cannot be given for its meat to be considered organic; the types of pesticides that can and cannot be used on crops; no GMOs, either as crops or as feed fed to organic animals; no artificial preservatives.  There are also many things “organic” doesn’t mean—it‘s not an animal welfare standard, it doesn’t exclude crops grown in monocultures, it doesn’t exclude large-scale farms, and it doesn’t mean food was raised in the most sustainable or environmentally friendly means possible.
Misunderstandings aside however, “organic” does have a meaning. “Natural,” in contrast, has no set meaning: neither its definition nor its use are standardized. The FDA has guidelines on what “natural” should mean, but, as critics attest, and grocery shelves stocked with “all natural” foods made with highly processed ingredients show, what counts as “natural” can seem pretty far from nature.
In December 2015, Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey on consumer opinions about food labels and labeling. The survey was administered via phone by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, NJ, who interviewed 1,005 adult US residents. Respondents were of equal gender distribution, and data were statistically weighted according to demographics and geography to be to representative of the US population.
Despite the term’s use as a mere marketing tool, according to the survey, more than 60 percent of respondents believed that the “natural” label meant that meat, poultry, and packaged and processed foods contained no artificial ingredients or colors, that animals raised for meat were never administered growth hormones nor fed feed with GMOs or artificial colorings, and that packaged and processed foods were produced without GMOs, pesticides, or artificial chemicals or colors. When asked if they thought “natural” was a verified label, a slim majority (51%) knew that it was not, while 45 percent believed it was, and 4 percent were unsure.
On the above issues, survey respondents were by-and-large misinformed: but the problem isn’t that the public misunderstands what “natural” means, the problem is that the “natural” label has essentially no meaning.
Any survey always has some amount of bias, and this Consumer Reports survey is no different. Whenever a pollster asks respondents their thoughts on a list of issues, the fact that the pollster created the list of issues—opposed to the respondents listing off the issues they find important unprompted—shapes the direction of the study, and the results. And, as the Washington Post recently reported, when poll respondents are asked to list those food issues most important to them unprompted, their responses are usually quite limited. Likewise, had respondents been asked “what do you think ‘natural’ means?” open-ended, the results in this poll would have probably looked quite different.
Its shortcomings aside, this new poll from Consumer Reports does touch on an important issue: Americans obviously have something in mind when they see the “natural” label, and even though 51 percent know it isn’t verified, at least a portion of those who know this still think it means something meaningful. This insight is interesting in light of results from polling out of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs: our research found that transparency was among the issues Americans prioritize the most, and also among the issues Americans felt food producers prioritize the least.

Whether or not this data suggests that “natural” should be defined, or if defining “natural” would improve Americans’ understanding of the label, is debatable. But one thing is for sure: when it comes to what “natural” means, and what Americans think it means, there is a very real, and measurable, disconnect.  
Read additional posts in the Science & Our Food series:


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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