We ask a lot of our food. We want it to be delicious, to be healthy, to conform to our worldview—a worldview in which we aren’t the ones who are damaging the environment or subjugating poor people around the world to grow and harvest and prepare the things we eat. As complicated as the global supply chain that makes sure food shows up on our plates is, the system we rely on to say whether or not this or that product can do all of those things or offer any benefit at all isn’t necessarily up to the task. Food labels are supposed to help us decipher those things: This product is natural; that product is organic. But what those words mean in practice can differ wildly from how consumers interpret them.
We’re teaming up with Consumer Reports to explore that gap in an ongoing campaign called Know Your Labels, Know Your Food that will look at a wide array of food-labeling topics, including well-defined terms like "organic," the push for GMO labeling, and those labels that prove to be, well, rather meaningless.
"Natural," or "all natural," may be the worst perpetrator in that sense. According to a new survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 59 percent of consumers check to see if the product they’re buying is natural. Furthermore, a majority of people believe that the term should mean a packaged item was made from ingredients grown without pesticides (86 percent), doesn’t include artificial ingredients (87 percent), and doesn’t contain GMOs (85 percent).
If that widely held understanding of what “natural” means were true, it would be a pretty effective label. However, the Food and Drug Administration says it “has not developed a definition for use of the term 'natural' or its derivatives.” In other words, the label isn’t backed by any kind of standards, although the administration “has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” That means only one of those beliefs could be true, but even that’s in question. For example, CR has a complaint in with the FDA on the use of artificial caramel colors in foods labeled “natural.”
And that’s why Consumer Reports is pushing to kill the natural label altogether. Because consumers are looking for labels that say much more about our food—labels that are backed up by rigorous standards. So over the next four months, as we continue to explore the gap between consumer assumptions, expectations, and reality, TakePart readers will be able to sign a petition to ban the "natural" label through the Take Action Platform widget integrated into each article in the Know Your Labels, Know Your Food campaign.
If policy makers were to listen to consumers, we might land on an approach in which every label had to mean what it said. CR’s recent survey also found that for meat products, for example, 89 percent of consumers think the "natural" label should mean that the meat came from animals that were raised without growth hormones, and 85 percent want "natural" to denote that the animals weren’t fed GMO grains. Yet none of those practices is required for the "natural" label.
In the coming months, we’ll look at what credible food labels look like, at the greenwashing of labels like "natural"—and the supermarket pastoral aesthetic they’re associated with—and ultimately show you what you should and shouldn’t look for at the grocery store.